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The Man with the Muckrake-Theodore Roosevelt
04-04-2014, 01:38 PM
Post: #1
The Man with the Muckrake-Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt
"The Man with the Muck-rake"
delivered 14 April 1906
Over a century ago Washington laid the corner-stone of the Capitol in what was
then little more than a tract of wooded wilderness here beside the Potomac. We
now find it necessary to provide great additional buildings for the business of the
government. This growth in the need for the housing of the government is but a
proof and example of the way in which the nation has grown and the sphere of
action of the National Government has grown. We now administer the affairs of a
nation in which the extraordinary growth of population has been outstripped by
the growth of wealth and the growth in complex interests.
The material problems that face us to-day are not such as they were in
Washington’s time, but the underlying facts of human nature are the same now
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as they were then. Under altered external form we war with the same tendencies
toward evil that were evident in Washington’s time, and are helped by the same
tendencies for good.
It is about some of these that I wish to say a word to-day. In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s
Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man
who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was
offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor
regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the
In “Pilgrim’s Progress” the Man with the Muck-rake is set forth as the example of
him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things. Yet he also
typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and
fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.
Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and
debasing. There is filth on the floor and it must be scraped up with the muckrake;
and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all
the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else,
who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake,
speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of
the most potent forces for evil.
There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and
there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be
relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or
business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social
life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the
platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes
such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of
use only if it is absolutely truthful. The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if
his mendacity takes the form of slander, he may be worse than most thieves. It
puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with
hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of
indiscriminate assault upon character does not good, but very great harm. The
soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or
even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.
Now, it is easy to twist out of shape what I have just said, easy to affect to
misunderstand it, and, if it is slurred over in repetition, not difficult really to
misunderstand it. Some persons are sincerely incapable of understanding that to
denounce mud-slinging does not mean the endorsement of whitewashing; and
both the interested individuals who need whitewashing, and those others who
practice mud-slinging, like to encourage such confusion of ideas. One of the
chief counts against those who make indiscriminate assault upon men in
business or men in public life, is that they invite a reaction which is sure to tell
powerfully in favor of the unscrupulous scoundrel who really ought to be
attacked, who ought to be exposed, who ought, if possible, to be put in the
penitentiary. If Aristides is praised overmuch as just, people get tired of hearing
it; and overcensure of the unjust finally and from similar reasons results in their
Any excess is almost sure to invite a reaction; and, unfortunately, the reaction,
instead of taking the form of punishment of those guilty of the excess, is very apt
to take the form either of punishment of the unoffending or of giving immunity,
and even strength, to offenders. The effort to make financial or political profit out
of the destruction of character can only result in public calamity. Gross and
reckless assaults on character, whether on the stump or in newspaper,
magazine, or book, create a morbid and vicious public sentiment, and at the
same time act as a profound deterrent to able men of normal sensitiveness and
tend to prevent them from entering the public service at any price.

As an instance in point, I may mention that one serious difficulty encountered in
getting the right type of men to dig the Panama Canal is the certainty that they
will be exposed, both without, and, I am sorry to say, sometimes within,
Congress, to utterly reckless assaults on their character and capacity.
At the risk of repetition let me say again that my plea is, not for immunity to but
for the most unsparing exposure of the politician who betrays his trust, of the big
business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways.
There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he
has disgraced. Expose the crime, and hunt down the criminal; but remember that
even in the case of crime, if it is attacked in sensational, lurid, and untruthful
fashion, the attack may do more damage to the public mind than the crime itself.
It is because I feel that there should be no rest in the endless war against the
forces of evil that I ask that the war be conducted with sanity as well as with
The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of
society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward
to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.
There are beautiful things above and roundabout them; and if they gradually
grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness
is gone. If the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to
single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows. Such painting finally
induces a kind of moral color-blindness; and people affected by it come to the
conclusion that no man is really black, and no man is really white, but they are all
gray. In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor in the
honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of the accusation
as of the offense; it becomes well-nigh hopeless to stir them either to wrath
against wrong-doing or to enthusiasm for what is right; and such a mental
attitude in the public gives hope to every knave, and is the despair of honest
To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial life with such
crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent men in the general
condemnation means the searing of the public conscience. There results a
general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or
else of a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad. Either
attitude is fraught with untold damage to the country as a whole. The fool who
has not sense to discriminate between what is good and what is bad is well-nigh
as dangerous as the man who does discriminate and yet chooses the bad. There
is nothing more distressing to every good patriot, to every good American, than
the hard, scoffing spirit which treats the allegation of dishonesty in a public man
as a cause for laughter.
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Such laughter is worse than the crackling of thorns under a pot, for it denotes not
merely the vacant mind, but the heart in which high emotions have been choked
before they could grow to fruition.
There is any amount of good in the world, and there never was a time when
loftier and more disinterested work for the betterment of mankind was being
done than now. The forces that tend for evil are great and terrible, but the forces
of truth and love and courage and honesty and generosity and sympathy are
also stronger than ever before. It is a foolish and timid, no less than a wicked,
thing to blink the fact that the forces of evil are strong, but it is even worse to fail
to take into account the strength of the forces that tell for good.
Hysterical sensationalism is the very poorest weapon wherewith to fight for
lasting righteousness. The men who with stern sobriety and truth assail the many
evils of our time, whether in the public press or in magazines, or in books, are
the leaders and allies of all engaged in the work for social and political
betterment. But if they give good reason for distrust of what they say, if they chill
the ardor of those who demand truth as a primary virtue, they thereby betray the
good cause, and play into the hands of the very men against whom they are
nominally at war.
In his “Ecclesiastical Polity” that fine old Elizabethan divine, Bishop Hooker,
wrote: “He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are not so well
governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favorable hearers;
because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regimen is
subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings are
innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgment to consider.”
This truth should be kept constantly in mind by every free people desiring to
preserve the sanity and poise indispensable to the permanent success of selfgovernment.
Yet, on the other hand, it is vital not to permit this spirit to sanity
and self-command to degenerate into mere mental stagnation. Bad though a
state of hysterical excitement is, and evil though the results are which come from
the violent oscillations such excitement invariably produces, yet a sodden
acquiescence in evil is even worse.
At this moment we are passing through a period of great unrest—social, political,
and industrial unrest. It is of the utmost importance for our future that this should
prove to be not the unrest of mere rebelliousness against life, of mere
dissatisfaction with the inevitable inequality of conditions, but the unrest of a
resolute and eager ambition to secure the betterment of the individual and the
nation. So far as this movement of agitation throughout the country takes the
form of a fierce discontent with evil, of a determination to punish the authors of
evil, whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed as a
sign of healthy life.
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If, on the other hand, it turns into a mere crusade of appetite against appetite, of
a contest between the brutal greed of the “have-nots” and the brutal greed of the
“haves,” then it has no significance for good, but only for evil. If it seeks to
establish a line of cleavage, not along the line which divides good men from bad,
but along that other line, running at right angles thereto, which divides those who
are well off from those who are less well off, then it will be fraught with
immeasurable harm to the body politic.
We can no more and no less afford to condone evil in the man of capital than evil
in the man of no capital. The wealthy man who exults because there is a failure
of justice in the effort to bring some trust magnate to an account for his misdeeds
is as bad as, and no worse than, the so-called labor leader who clamorously
strives to excite a foul class feeling on behalf of some other labor leader who is
implicated in murder. One attitude is as bad as the other, and no worse; in each
case the accused is entitled to exact justice; and in neither case is there need of
action by others which can be construed into an expression of sympathy for
It is a prime necessity that if the present unrest is to result in permanent good the
emotion shall be translated into action, and that the action shall be marked by
honesty, sanity, and self-restraint. There is mighty little good in a mere spasm of
reform. The reform that counts is that which comes through steady, continuous
growth; violent emotionalism leads to exhaustion.
It is important to this people to grapple with the problems connected with the
amassing of enormous fortunes, and the use of those fortunes, both corporate
and individual, in business. We should discriminate in the sharpest way between
fortunes well-won and fortunes ill-won; between those gained as an incident to
performing great services to the community as a whole, and those gained in evil
fashion by keeping just within the limits of mere law-honesty.
Of course no amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way
compensates for misconduct in making them. As a matter of personal conviction,
and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that
we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that
of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount either given in life
or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual—a tax so framed as to
put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand
on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax, of course, to be
imposed by the National and not the State Government.
Such taxation should, of course, be aimed merely at the inheritance or
transmission in their entirety of those fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits.
Again, the National Government must in some form exercise supervision over
corporations engaged in interstate business—and all large corporations are
engaged in interstate business—whether by license or otherwise, so as to permit
us to deal with the far-reaching evils of overcapitalization.

This year we are making a beginning in the direction of serious effort to settle
some of these economic problems by the railway-rate legislation. Such
legislation, if so framed, as I am sure it will be, as to secure definite and tangible
results, will amount to something of itself; and it will amount to a great deal more
in so far as it is taken as a first step in the direction of a policy of
superintendence and control over corporate wealth engaged in interstate
commerce, this superintendence and control not to be exercised in a spirit of
malevolence toward the men who have created the wealth, but with the firm
purpose both to do justice to them and to see that they in their turn do justice to
the public at large.
The first requisite in the public servants who are to deal in this shape with
corporations, whether as legislators or as executives, is honesty. This honesty
can be no respecter of persons. There can be no such thing as unilateral
honesty. The danger is not really from corrupt corporations; it springs from the
corruption itself, whether exercised for or against corporations.
The eighth commandment reads: “Thou shalt not steal.” It does not read: “Thou
shalt not steal from the rich man.” It does not read: “Thou shalt not steal from the
poor man.” It reads simply and plainly: “Thou shalt not steal.”
No good whatever will come from that warped and mock morality which
denounces the misdeeds of men of wealth and forgets the misdeeds practiced at
their expense; which denounces bribery, but blinds itself to blackmail; which
foams with rage if a corporation secures favors by improper methods, and
merely leers with hideous mirth if the corporation is itself wronged. The only
public servant who can be trusted honestly to protect the rights of the public
against the misdeeds of a corporation is that public man who will just as surely
protect the corporation itself from wrongful aggression.
If a public man is willing to yield to popular clamor and do wrong to the men of
wealth or to rich corporations, it may be set down as certain that if the
opportunity comes he will secretly and furtively do wrong to the public in the
interest of a corporation.
But, in addition to honesty, we need sanity. No honesty will make public man
useful if that man is timid or foolish, if he is a hot-headed zealot or an
impracticable visionary.
As we strive for reform we find that it is not at all merely the case of a long up-hill
pull. On the contrary, there is almost as much of breeching work as of collar
work; to depend only on traces means that there will soon be a runaway and an
The men of wealth who today are trying to prevent the regulation and control of
their business in the interest of the public by the proper government authorities
will not succeed, in my judgment, in checking the progress of the movement. But
if they did succeed they would find that they had sown the wind and would surely
reap the whirlwind, for they would ultimately provoke the violent excesses which
accompany a reform coming by convulsion instead of by steady and natural
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On the other hand, the wild preachers of unrest and discontent, the wild agitators
against the entire existing order, the men who act crookedly, whether because of
sinister design or from mere puzzle-headedness, the men who preach
destruction without proposing any substitute for what they intend to destroy, or
who propose a substitute which would be far worse than the existing evils—all
these men are the most dangerous opponents of real reform. If they get their
way they will lead the people into a deeper pit than any into which they could fall
under the present system. If they fail to get their way they will still do incalculable
harm by provoking the kind of reaction which, in its revolt against the senseless
evil of their teaching, would enthrone more securely than ever the very evils
which their misguided followers believe they are attacking.
More important then aught else is the development of the broadest sympathy of
man for man. The welfare of the wage-worker, the welfare of the tiller of the soil,
upon these depend the welfare of the entire country; their good is not to be
sought in pulling down others; but their good must be the prime object of all our
Materially we must strive to secure a broader economic opportunity for all men,
so that each shall have a better chance to show the stuff of which he is made.
Spiritually and ethically we must strive to bring about clean living and right
thinking. We appreciate also that the things of the soul are immeasurably more
The foundation-stone of national life is, and ever must be, the high individual
character of the average citizen.
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