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Hear TR’s Speech “The Liberty of the People”

The 1912 presidential election offered American voters a choice between a conservative and generally unpopular Republican incumbent (William Howard Taft), a moderate governor who won the heavily contested Democratic nomination (Woodrow Wilson), third party candidate former President Theodore Roosevelt, and a Socialist Party candidate running for the fourth time (Eugene V. Debs). Angered over what he felt was a betrayal of his policies by Taft, his hand-picked successor, Roosevelt and others abandoned the Republican party and founded the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Voter interest, already piqued by the unusual campaign and the candidates’ slashing attacks on one another, was further heightened by the availability of sound recordings of campaign addresses and, for the first time, film footage of the candidates on the campaign trail. In this recorded speech, entitled “The Liberty of the People,” Roosevelt took the most openly pro-labor stance of the three major candidates. When the voters went to the polls in November, however, Wilson was the clear victor.

Listen to Audio:

Theodore Roosevelt: The difference between Mr. Wilson and myself is fundamental. The other day in a speech at Sioux Falls, Mr. Wilson stated his position when he said that the history of government, the history of liberty, was the history of the limitation of governmental power. This is true as an academic statement of history in the past. It is not true as a statement affecting the present. It is true of the history of medieval Europe. It is not true of the history of twentieth-century America.

In the days when all governmental power existed exclusively in the king or in the baronage and when the people had no shred of that power in their own hands, then it undoubtedly was true that the history of liberty was the history of the limitation of the governmental power of the outsiders who possessed that power. But today, the people have, actually or potentially, the entire governmental power. It is theirs to use and to exercise, if they choose to use and to exercise it. It offers the only adequate instrument with which they can work for the betterment, for the uplifting of the masses of our people.

The liberty of which Mr. Wilson speaks today means merely the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. It means merely the liberty of some factory owner to work haggard women over-hours for under-pay and himself to pocket the profits. It means the liberty of the factory owner to close his operatives into some crazy deathtrap on a top floor, where if fire starts, the slaughter is immense. It means the liberty of the big factory owner—who is conscienceless, and unscrupulous—to work his men and women under conditions which [inaudible] their lives like an [inaudible]. It means the liberty of even less conscientious factory owners to make their money out of the toil, the labor, of little children. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by Mr. Wilson. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by the limitation of governmental power.

We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress. We stand for the limitation of his liberty not to oppress those who are weaker than himself.

Source: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Voice Library.

See Also:Hear Wilson's Speech "On Labor"
Hear Taft's Speech "On Popular Unrest"
Debs Attacks "the Monstrous System" of Capitalism