Beck's Bull Moose bamboozlery

Teddy Roosevelt was possessed of a certain kind of toughness, famously beginning a 1912 campaign speech by saying: “I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” As such, I'd be kind of afraid to pick a fight with the man, even though he's been dead for nearly a century.

Glenn Beck, on the other hand, has no such fear of the ol' Rough Rider, and is increasingly devoting his on-air resources to tarnishing the reputation and legacy of America's 26th president. Last night, for example, Beck played a game on his show called “Who said it?” in which he matched supposedly damning quotes to the famous “progressive” who uttered them. Among the quotes was Roosevelt's purported exclamation: “To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!” Beck took this quote, along with a few others, to proclaim: “Anti-business, anti-capitalism, anti-Constitution -- that's what progressives are.”

As with most of Beck's revisionist history, this is in need of some context and vigorous fact-checking.

In May 1902, anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania went on strike, demanding higher wages and shorter hours. Employers refused to deal with the unions, and coal production essentially ground to a halt, sending coal prices through the roof. Roosevelt, as president, intently followed the strike's progress, knowing that he had no authority to intervene, but growing increasingly concerned as winter approached that the short supply of coal -- America's primary source for heat at the time -- would lead to “untold misery ... with the certainty of riots which might develop into social war.”

Roosevelt's view was that he, as president, was steward of the national welfare, and that the coal shortage threatened that welfare. As Rutgers history professor John Whiteclay Chambers wrote in The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920, Roosevelt believed the president “should intervene in the economy when necessary to contain the most destructive aspects of assertive wealth and provide some protection for its victims. Without strong presidential leadership and some reforms, mounting discontent might explode into widespread militance and even class conflict.” [Page 175] Chambers also noted that Roosevelt's interventionist philosophy was tempered with a desire to “preserve American corporate capitalism as it was evolving by regulating it in the public interest.”

It was in this context that Roosevelt was alleged to have said: “To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!” It wasn't an expression of the “anti-Constitution” philosophy Beck attributes to Roosevelt, but rather an acknowledgement by Roosevelt that he considered the threat of widespread fuel riots to be so serious that he would knowingly violate the bounds of his authority by intervening in the coal strike. And Roosevelt did intervene, inviting both labor leaders and employers to the White House for mediations in October 1902, and subsequently threatening to seize control of the mines. The threat worked, and the strike was soon resolved.

As the Labor Department's history of the 1902 coal strike makes clear, Roosevelt knew the risks he was running:

He recognized that under ordinary conditions he had no right to interfere in the strike. But Roosevelt was not the kind of man to “sit by idly” while “misery and death come to the great masses of people in our large cities.” He told his Attorney General and Secretary of War that strong action might be an “evil precedent,” but he would run the risk of impeachment rather than expose the Nation to chaos.

One can debate whether or not Roosevelt was right to knowingly exceed the limits placed on the executive office in the interest of national welfare, but it's ridiculous to suggest that this one quote from Roosevelt shows that he was, or that progressives in general are, “anti-Constitution.”