“Cattle Rustling and the Republic” by Theodore Roosevelt

With an old cowboy story of North Dakota, Roosevelt illustrates a moral truth about representative democracy and the line it threads between brutal revolution and authoritarian plutocracy.
⁓The Voice before the Void

“Cattle Rustling and the Republic”

from Realizable Ideals (The Earl Lectures), “The Public Servant and the Eighth Commandment,” address delivered extemporaneously to the Pacific Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, 1911 spring

Theodore Roosevelt

edited by The Voice before the Void

In the old days, I used to have a cow-ranch in the short-grass country. At that time, there were no fences within a thousand miles of it. If a calf was passed by on the round-up, so that next year when it was a yearling and was not following any cow, it was still unbranded, it was called a maverick. It was range custom or range law that if a maverick were found on any range, the man finding it would put on the brand of that range. I had hired a new cow-puncher, and one day when he and I were riding, we struck a maverick. It was on a neighbor’s range, the Thistle Range. The puncher roped and threw the maverick; we built a little fire of sage-brush, and took out the cinch iron, heated it, and started to run on the brand. I said to him: “The Thistle brand.” He answered: “That’s all right, boss, I know my business.” In a minute, I said, “Hold on, you’re putting on my brand”; to which he answered: “Yes, I always put on the boss’s brand.” I said: “Oh, well, you go back to the house and get your time.” He rose, saying, “What’s that for? I was putting on your brand”; and I closed the conversation with the remark: “Yes, my friend, and if you will steal for me, you will steal from me.”

That applies in lots of occupations besides those of the cow-punchers.

Nowhere does it apply more clearly than in public life.

Perhaps the most dangerous of all public servants… is the public servant who gets into office by persuading a section of the public that he will do something that is just a little bit crooked in their interest. [It does not matter] what section of the public is thus persuaded. [It does not matter] whether it is the great corporation man who wishes to see a given individual made judge, or executive officer, or legislator, “because he is our man and he will look out for the rights of property,” or whether, on the other hand, it is the wage-worker, the laboring man, who supports some candidate because that candidate announces that he is “the friend of labor,” although… the candidate is the foe of decency… [because he] preaches violence, envy, class hatred….

The capitalist who thinks it is to the interest of his class to have in high office a corrupt man who will serve his class interest, is laying up for himself and for his children a day of terrible retribution; for if that type of capitalist has his way long enough, he will persuade the whole community that the interest of the community is bound up in overthrowing every man in public office who serves property…. The corrupt capitalist may help himself for the moment, and he may be defended by others of his own class on grounds of expediency; but in the end, he works fearful damage to his fellows. If a business man cannot run a given business… save on condition of doing things which can only be done in the darkness, then… let him get out of it and into some other business…. The test is easy. Let him ask whether he is afraid anything will be found out or not. If he is not, he is all right; if he is, he is all wrong. So much for the capitalist.

Let the wage-worker in his turn remember that the candidate for public office who appeals for his support upon the ground that he will condone lawless violence, that he will look the other way when violence is perpetrated, that he will recognize the rules of a labor organization of any kind as standing above the Constitution and the laws of his country — let the laboring man remember that if he supports such a candidate, he in his turn is doing his best to bring about a condition of things where democracy would come to an end, where self-rule would come to an end.

Let [any man] remember that he had better be most shocked at the [mis]deeds of his own class, and not at the misdeeds of the men of another class.

 

original configuration of text:

Perhaps the most dangerous of all public servants, however, is the public servant who gets into office by persuading a section of the public that he will do something that is just a little bit crooked in their interest. I do not care in the least what section of the public is thus persuaded. I do not care whether it is the great corporation man who wishes to see a given individual made judge, or executive officer, or legislator, “because he is our man and he will look out for the rights of property,” or whether, on the other hand, it is the wage-worker, the laboring man, who supports some candidate because that candidate announces that he is “the friend of labor,” although the man to whom the appeal is made ought to understand also that the candidate is the foe of decency. Capitalist and wage-worker alike will do well to remember that their interests, face to face with the public man, are primarily as those affecting all good American citizens, and that whatever the temporary advantage may be, they irretrievably harm themselves and the children who are to come after them if they permit themselves to be drawn into any other attitude.

The capitalist who thinks it is to the interest of his class to have in high office a corrupt man who will serve his class interest, is laying up for himself and for his children a day of terrible retribution; for if that type of capitalist has his way long enough he will persuade the whole community that the interest of the community is bound up in overthrowing every man in public office who serves property, even though he serves it honestly. The corrupt capitalist may help himself for the moment, and he may be defended by others of his own class on grounds of expediency; but in the end he works fearful damage to his fellows. If a business man cannot run a given business except by bribing or by submitting to blackmail let him get out of it and into some other business. If he cannot run his business save on condition of doing things which can only be done in the darkness, then let him enter into some totally different field of activity. The test is easy. Let him ask whether he is afraid anything will be found out or not. If he is not, he is all right; if he is, he is all wrong. So much for the capitalist.

Let the wage-worker in his turn remember that the candidate for public office who appeals for his support upon the ground that he will condone lawless violence, that he will look the other way when violence is perpetrated, that he will recognize the rules of a labor organization of any kind as standing above the Constitution and the laws of his country, let the laboring man remember that if he supports such a candidate he in his turn is doing his best to bring about a condition of things where democracy would come to an end, where self-rule would come to an end. Let the capitalist remember that he had better be most shocked at the deeds of his own class, and not at the misdeeds of the men of another class. And let the laboring man remember in his turn that the foe against whom he should most carefully guard is the corrupt labor man, the labor candidate who preaches violence, envy, class hatred. That is the kind of man who most jeopards the welfare of the wage-worker, just as the successful corruptionist, the capitalist who has reached a high position in the financial world by the practice of acts that will not bear the light of day, is really the worst foe of the very property classes that are sometimes so misguided as to rally to his defense when he is attacked.

I shall tell you one story: In the old days I used to have a cow-ranch in the short-grass country. At that time there were no fences within a thousand miles of it. If a calf was passed by on the round-up, so that next year when it was a yearling and was not following any cow, it was still unbranded, it was called a maverick. It was range custom or range law that if a maverick were found on any range the man finding it would put on the brand of that range. I had hired a new cow-puncher, and one day when he and I were riding we struck a maverick. It was on a neighbor’s range, the Thistle Range. The puncher roped and threw the maverick; we built a little fire of sage-brush, and took out the cinch iron, heated it, and started to run on the brand. I said to him: “The Thistle brand.” He answered: “That’s all right, boss, I know my business.” In a minute I said, “Hold on, you’re putting on my brand”; to which he answered: “Yes, I always put on the boss’s brand.” I said: “Oh, well, you go back to the house and get your time.” He rose, saying, “What’s that for? I was putting on your brand”; and I closed the conversation with the remark: “Yes, my friend, and if you will steal for me, you will steal from me.” That applies in lots of occupations besides those of the cow-punchers. Nowhere does it apply more clearly than in public life.

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