Teddy Roosevelt on Executive Power and the Constitution

January 18th, 2014

The Bully Pulpit has an interesting discussion on how  Teddy Roosevelt decided to mediate the Mine Workers strike, even though his Attorney General told him that the Presidency lacks such power. His answer, was to look to Lincoln and Jackson, and assert the broad executive power needed to deal with an emergency of the time.

Roosevelt himself was increasingly frustrated. “I am at my wit’s end how to proceed,” he admitted. “Of course, we have nothing whatever to do with this coal strike and no earthly responsibility for it,” he wrote to Hanna. “But the public at large will tend to visit upon our heads responsibility for the shortage in coal precisely as Kansas and Nebraska visited upon our heads their failure to raise good crops in the arid belt, eight, ten or a dozen years ago.”

In discussions with Attorney General Knox, Roosevelt was told that he had “no warrant” to intervene. The Constitution provided no precedent for a president to mediate disputes between labor and management. He was warned “that he would almost certainly fail if he tried; and that he would injure his prestige and perhaps sacrifice his political future if he essayed to step outside the role of his constitutional duties.” Roosevelt would not be confined by precedent or bound by fear of failure. He held to what he called “the Jackson-Lincoln theory of the Presidency; that is, that occasionally great national crises arise which call for immediate and vigorous executive action, and that in such cases it is the duty of the President to act upon the theory that he is the steward of the people, and that the proper attitude for him to take is that he is bound to assume that he has the legal right to do whatever the needs of the people demand, unless the Constitution or the laws explicitly forbid him to do it.”

Who needs to carry a big stick when you can just dispatch drones!?

When his efforts to negotiate with the coal operators and the union failed, he considered pulling a Truman, and nationalizing the coal mines, a la Youngstown Sheet & Tube!

His undisclosed strategy was to ready “a first-rate general” and 10,000 regular Army troops to enter the coal fields with instructions “to dispossess the operators and run the mines as a receiver” for the government until a settlement could be reached. He secured the agreement of his selected general, John M. Schofield, to pay “no heed to any authority, judicial or otherwise,” besides the president in his role as “Commander-in-Chief.” According to this stratagem, if “the operators went to court and had a writ served on him, he would do as was done under Lincoln, simply send the writ on to the President.” This intrepid plan illustrated one of Roosevelt’s favorite maxims: “Don’t hit till you have to; but, when you do hit, hit hard.”

Whether the president would have implemented this unorthodox design is not clear. “Theodore was a bit of a bluffer,” Elihu Root observed. But Mark Sullivan had discussed the measure with Roosevelt on a number of occasions and believed he was prepared to follow through: “The one condition Roosevelt’s spirit could not endure,” he remarked, “was any situation in which individuals or groups seemed able to defy or ignore the people as a whole and their representative in the White House.”

Fortunately it never came to that, and Secretary of War Elihu Root was able to work out a compromise with J.P. Morgan. But boy, Teddy was a serious unitary executive.