How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers

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How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers

Magazine article

By: Theodore Roosevelt

Date: 1897

Source: Roosevelt, Theodore, and Stead, W.T., eds. "How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers."Review of Reviews. 15 (1897): 36.

About the Author: Theodore Roosevelt Jr., served as a New York State Assemblyman, the Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, and other public offices before volunteering for military service during the Spanish-American War (1898). He helped lead the Rough Riders unit to fame during the war and was elected governor of New York later that year. In 1900 he was elected vice president of the United States on the Republican ticket, and in 1901 he became the nation's twenty-sixth president after the assassination of President William McKinley. Roosevelt held the office until 1909. As president he supported progressive reforms, such as greater government control over business and the conservation of nature. Dissatisfied with his successor, President Taft, Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912 under the banner of the Progressive or "Bull Moose" Party. He finished second, ahead of Taft but behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Theodore Roosevelt's fifth cousin is Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1933 to 1945.


Theodore Roosevelt authored many books and essays on a variety of topics, including his views on public policy, his experiences as an outdoorsman, and his take on historical figures and events. His article, "How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers," was a response to a letter he received from Thomas Watson, a Populist Party candidate for vice-president in 1896. Watson wrote the letter to further explain his political ideals, which he believed Roosevelt had misrepresented in an earlierReview of Reviewsarticle.

In that article, entitled, "The Three Vice-Presidential Candidates and What They Represent," Roosevelt had outlined his thoughts on the role of the vice-president in the United States, and gave his opinion about the three vice-presidential candidates. Watson's response explained his position concerning wealthy individuals who were leaders of companies and banks. Using his own family's legacy as an example, Watson explained that he wanted to see the wealthy play a greater role in governance, something he said they are able to do. Roosevelt, who was New York City's Police Commissioner at the time, began his response to the letter by saying he held Watson in high regard, and explained it was not Watson he was criticizing, but those who claimed to hold his views, but in reality had different motivations.

The late nineteenth century was a period in American history in which industrialization and commerce had built mighty corporations and monopolistic trusts, and brought tremendous wealth and power to those who controlled them. As a consequence, they lived lives of privilege, and had great influence over politics and society. The rise of industry had also led to the concentration of millions of people in cities like New York and Chicago to work in the factories. Many of them worked long hours in dangerous, difficult jobs, but earned little pay and lived in crowded slums. By the 1890s, the disparity between the lives of the privileged and the lot of the workingman had given rise to much criticism and demands for reform. Reformers, the Populist Party among them, wanted to use the power of government to control corporations, establish better working conditions, and improve the life of the poor in general. This would necessarily come at the expense of the rich, who many among the reformers felt were deliberately exploiting average Americans so they could live in ever-increasing luxury.


There are plenty of ugly things about wealth and its possessors in the present age, and I suppose there have been in all ages. There are many rich people who so utterly lack patriotism, or show such sordid and selfish traits of character, or lead such mean and vacuous lives, that all right-minded men must look upon them with angry contempt; but, on the whole, the thrifty are apt to be better citizens than the thriftless; and theworst capitalist cannot harm laboring men as they are harmed by demagogues.

As the people of a State grow more and more intelligent the State itself may be able to play a larger and larger part in the life of the community, while at the same time individual effort may be given freer and less restricted movement along certain lines; but it is utterly unsafe to give the State more than the minimum of power just so long as it contains masses of men who can be moved by the pleas and denunciations of the average Socialist leader of to-day. There may be better schemes of taxation than these at present employed; it may be wise to devise inheritance taxes, and to impose regulations on the kinds of business which can be carried on only under the especial protection of the State; and where there is a real abuse by wealth it needs to be, and in this country generally has been, promptly done away with; but the first lesson to teach the poor man is that, as a whole, the wealth in the community is distinctly beneficial to him; that he is better off in the long run because other men are well off; and that the surest way to destroy what measure of prosperity he may have is to paralyze industry and the well-being of those men who have achieved success.

I am not an empiricist; I would no more deny that sometimes human affairs can be much bettered by legislation than I would affirm that they can always be so bettered. I would no more make a fetish of unrestricted individualism than I would admit the power of the State offhand and radically to reconstruct society. It may become necessary to interfere even more than we have done with the right of private contract, and to shackle cunning as we have shackled force. All I insist upon is that we must be sure of our ground before trying to get any legislation at all, and that we must not expect too much from this legislation, nor refuse to better ourselves a little because we cannot accomplish everything at a jump. Above all, it is criminal to excite anger and discontent without proposing a remedy, or only proposing a false remedy. The worst foe of the poor man is the labor leader, whether philanthropist or politician, who tries to teach him that he is a victim of conspiracy and injustice, when in reality he is merely working out his fate with blood and sweat as the immense majority of men who are worthy of the name always have done and always will have to do.

The difference between what can and what cannot be done by law is well exemplified by our experience with the negro problem, an experience of which Mr. Watson must have ample practical knowledge. The negroes were formerly held in slavery. This was a wrong which legislation could remedy, and which could not be remedied except by legislation. Accordingly they were set free by law. This having been done, many of their friends believed that in some way, by additional legislation, we could at once put them on an intellectual, social, and business equality with the whites. The effort has failed completely. In large sections of the country the negroes are not treated as they should be treated, and politically in particular the frauds upon them have been so gross and shameful as to awaken not merely indignation but bitter wrath; yet the best friends of the negro admit that his hope lies, not in legislation, but in the constant working of those often unseen forces of the national life which are greater than all legislation.

It is but rarely that great advances in general social well-being can be made by the adoption of some far-reaching scheme, legislative or otherwise; normally they come only by gradual growth, and by incessant effort to do first one thing, then another, and then another. Quack remedies of the universal cure-all type are generally as noxious to the body politic as to the body corporal.

Often the head-in-the-air social reformers, because people of sane and wholesome minds will not favor their wild schemes, themselves decline to favor schemes for practical reform. For the last two years there has been an honest effort in New York to give the city good government, and to work intelligently for better social conditions, especially in the poorest quarters. We have cleaned the streets; we have broken the power of the ward boss and the saloon-keeper to work injustice; we have destroyed the most hideous of the tenement houses in which poor people are huddled like swine in a sty; we have made parks and playgrounds for the children in the crowded quarters; in every possible way we have striven to make life easier and healthier and to give man and woman a chance to do their best work; while at the same time we have warred steadily against the pauper-producing, maudlin philanthropy of the free soup-kitchen and tramp lodging-house kind. In all this we have had practically no help from either the parlor socialists or the scarcely more noxious beer-room socialists, who are always howling about the selfishness of the rich and their unwillingness to do anything for those who are less well off.

There are certain labor unions, certain bodies of organized labor,—notably those admirable organizations which include the railway conductors, the locomotive engineers and the firemen,—which to my mind embody almost the best hope that there is for healthy national growth in the future; but bitter experience has taught men who work for reform in New York that the average labor leader, the average demagogue who shouts for a depreciated currency, or for the overthrow of the rich, will not do anything to help those who honestly strive to make better our civic conditions. There are immense numbers of workingmen to whom we can appeal with perfect confidence; but too often we find that a large proportion of the men who style themselves leaders of organized labor are influenced only by sullen, shortsighted hatred of what they do not understand, and are deaf to all appeals, whether to their national or to their civic patriotism.

What I most grudge in all this is the fact that sincere and zealous men of high character and honest purpose, men like Mr. Watson, men and women such as those he describes as attending his Populist meetings, or such as are to be found in all strata of our society, from the employer to the hardest-worked day laborer, go astray in their methods, and are thereby prevented from doing the full work for good they ought to. When a man goes on the wrong road himself he can do very little to guide others aright, even though these others are also on the wrong road. There are many wrongs to be righted; there are many measures of relief to be pushed; and it is a pity that when we are fighting what is bad and championing what is good, the men who ought to be our most effective allies should deprive themselves of usefulness by the wrong-headedness of their position. Rich men and poor men both do wrong on occasions, and whenever a specific instance of this can be pointed out all citizens alike should join in punishing the wrong-doer. Honesty and right-mindedness should be the tests; not wealth or poverty.

In our municipal administration here in New York we have acted with an equal band toward wrong-doers of high and low degree. The Board of Health condemns the tenement-house property of the rich landowner, whether this landowner be priest or layman, banker or railroad president, lawyer or manager of a real estate business; and it pays no heed to the intercession of any politician, whether this politician be Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile. At the same time the Police Department promptly suppresses, not only the criminal, but the rioter. In other words, we do strict justice. We feel we are defrauded of help to which we are entitled when men who ought to assist in any work to better the condition of the people decline to aid us because their brains are turned by dreams only worthy of a European revolutionist.

Many workingmen look with distrust upon laws which really would help them; laws for the intelligent restriction of immigration, for instance. I have no sympathy with mere dislike of immigrants; there are classes and even nationalities of them which stand at least on an equality with the citizens of native birth, as the last election showed. But in the interest of our workingmen we must in the end keep out laborers who are ignorant, vicious, and with low standards of life and comfort, just as we have shut out the Chinese.

Often labor leaders and the like denounce the present conditions of society, and especially of our political life, for shortcomings which they themselves have been instrumental in causing. In our cities the misgovernment is due, not to the misdeeds of the rich, but to the low standard of honesty and morality among citizens generally; and nothing helps the corrupt politician more than substituting either wealth or poverty for honesty as the standard by which to try a candidate. A few months ago a socialistic reformer in New York was denouncing the corruption caused by rich men because a certain judge was suspected of giving information in advance as to a decision in a case involving the interests of a great corporation. Now this judge had been elected some years previously, mainly because he was supposed to be a representative of the "poor man"; and the socialistic reformer himself, a year ago, was opposing the election of Mr. Beaman as judge because he was one of the firm of Evarts & Choate, who were friends of various millionaires and were counsel for various corporations. But if Mr. Beaman had been elected judge no human being, rich or poor, would have dared so much as hint at his doing anything improper.

Something can be done by good laws; more can be done by honest administration of the laws; but most of all can be done by frowning resolutely upon the preachers of vague discontent; and by upholding the true doctrine of self-reliance, self-help, and self-mastery. This doctrine sets forth many things. Among them is the fact that though a man can occasionally be helped when he stumbles, yet that it is useless to try to carry him when he will not or cannot walk; and worse than useless to try to bring down the work and reward of the thrifty and intelligent to the level of the capacity of the weak, the shiftless, and the idle. It further shows that the maudlin philanthropist and the maudlin sentimentalist are almost as noxious as the demagogue, and that it is even more necessary to temper mercy with justice than justice with mercy.

The worst lesson that can be taught a man is to rely upon others and to whine over his sufferings.

If an American is to amount to anything he must rely upon himself, and not upon the State; he must take pride in his own work, instead of sitting idle to envy the luck of others; he must face life with resolute courage, win victory if he can and accept defeat if he must, without seeking to place on his fellow-men a responsibility which is not theirs.

Let me say, in conclusion, that I do not write in the least from the standpoint of those whose association is purely with what are called the wealth classes. The men with whom I have worked and associated most closely during the last couple of years here in New York, with whom I have shared what is at least an earnest desire to better social and civic conditions (neither blinking what is evil nor being misled by the apostles of a false remedy), and with whose opinions as to what is right and practical my own in the main agree, are not capitalists, save as all men who by toil earn, and with prudence save, money are capitalists. They include reporters on the daily papers, editors of magazines as well as of newspapers, principals in the public schools, young lawyers, young architects, young doctors, young men of business, who are struggling to rise in their profession by dint of faithful work, but who give some of their time to doing what they can for the city, and a number of priests and clergymen; but as it happens the list does not include any man of great wealth, or any of those men whose names are in the public mind identified with great business corporations. Most of them have at one time or another in their lives faced poverty and know what it is; none of them are more than well-to-do. They include Catholics and Protestants, Jews, and men who would be regarded as heterodox by professors of most recognized creeds; some of them were born on this side, others are of foreign birth; but they are all Americans, heart and soul, who fight out for themselves the battles of their own lives, meeting sometimes defeat and sometimes victory. They neither forget that man does owe a duty to his fellows, and should strive to do what he can to increase the well-being of the community; nor yet do they forget that in the long run the only way to help people is to make them help themselves. They are prepared to try any properly guarded legislative remedy for ills which they believe can be remedied; but they perceive clearly that it is both foolish and wicked to teach the average man who is not well off that some wrong or injustice has been done him, and that he should hope for redress elsewhere than in his own industry honest and intelligence.


Roosevelt was himself a reformer, but as demonstrated in this article he did not believe that big business and the wealthy were inherently bad. In fact he thought that their success could help the country as a whole, and the poor as well. While he believed that some reform and control was necessary, he disagreed with those who felt that the system was exploitative by nature.

As president, Roosevelt put many of his political values into practice, persuading Congress to create the Bureau of Corporations to regulate big business. He filed his first antitrust suit against J. P. Morgan's Northern Securities Corporation. Roosevelt brought forty more such suits against big companies and regulated interstate commerce, drawing attention to his theory that equal footing for all American businesses and labor would benefit the common good. Big business was shocked by Roosevelt's efforts to decrease its power, while labor representatives said his reforms did not go far enough. During his presidency Roosevelt worked to provide protection to the working class, including the passage of food and drug safety laws. He also worked to protect natural resources, creating several national parks and wildlife reserves. He passed the National Monuments Act, protecting such places as the Grand Canyon.

Roosevelt and his supporters formed the Progressive Party in 1912, after the Republican Party rejected him as their nominee for presidency, despite his overwhelming success in the primaries. During the campaign, Roosevelt pushed for women's suffrage, an end to child labor, insurance for the unemployed, pensions for the elderly, and increased regulation of business trusts. Roosevelt lost the election, but is credited for initiating reforms that came about in later years, after his death in 1919. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese War.

Many of Roosevelt's writings have contributed to American political and social thought. His first book, "Naval War of 1812," which he began while a student at Harvard University, was required reading on naval strategy at the naval academy for many years. "How Not to Help Our Poorer Brother" was included in his 1897 publication "American Ideals," which includes essays about his theory of politics. In many of his works, Roosevelt stressed such virtues as fairness, hard work, and the moral duty to help the poor.



Miller, Nathan.Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992.

Roosevelt, Theodore.American ideals, and other essays, social and political. New York, London: G.P. Putnam's sons., 1897.

——.Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1913.


Roosevelt, Theodore. "The Three Vice-Presidential Candidates and What They Represent."Review of Reviews. 14 (September 1896): 289–91.

Web sites

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The American Experience: The Presidents. ":The Story of Theodore Roosevelt." 2003 < t_roosevelt/t_roosevelt_domestic.html> (accessed May 26, 2006).

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How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers

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How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers