His message to the Michigan legislature was clear and to the point. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. Don’t be too swayed by the rich and powerful, or too sentimental about the downtrodden.
Don’t sell out to the reactionary right, or be misled by what he called “those foolish conservatives, foolish reactionaries who fail to see that we are the real conservatives,” when we try to get abuses under control. He knew what he was talking about; he had been a state legislator himself. But he also warned against fuzzy-headed liberals who have a “vague, general desire to reform everything.”
That’s what President Teddy Roosevelt told the Michigan Legislature a century ago today, and they loved it. He was a Republican – and back then, nearly everyone else was too.
There were only five Democrats in the entire legislature. But Michigan’s love for Teddy went beyond party ties. Running for President three years earlier, he had gotten seventy percent of Michigan’s vote. Five years later, he would run again, on his Bull Moose ticket.
He won only six states then, but one of them was, indeed Michigan. The Michigan Teddy Roosevelt visited in 1907 was sort of an embryonic version of what it was about to become.
Though still mainly a farm state, it was rapidly becoming the automotive capital of the world. The man at the center of the industry, one Henry Ford, was probably too busy working out the bugs in his Model T to notice the President’s visit.
Detroit police were grappling with a newfangled problem, an epidemic of auto accidents that would kill – are you ready for this – seven people that year. Panicked police set a speed limit of eight miles an hour, but people kept going faster.
Michigan had about one-quarter the population it does today, and on that very day, the Detroit Tigers beat Cleveland on the way to winning that year’s American League pennant.
We were in transition then. The Civil War was only about as distant in time as the Vietnam War is from now. Some people had too much money, and wanted to prevent others from getting more.
Breaking up what he saw as unfair monopolies and trusts were the hallmark of what Teddy Roosevelt spent his presidency trying to do.
Yet what would he think if he were around today? Historians know that trying to guess what people in the past might have thought about present-day problems is futile. But it’s always fun to guess.
My guess is that Theodore Roosevelt would be a lot like a John McCain with a more progressive social policy. The party bosses never liked or trusted either man; they saw them as mavericks, loose cannons.
Teddy probably would have supported the Iraq war; he believed in a muscular and, frankly, imperialistic foreign policy.
But it is difficult to imagine him cozying up to Halliburton. The only thing we know for sure is that he would be happy and astonished, perhaps, that Michigan is remembering him today.