Remembering the Roosevelts: On Empathy and Its Limits

By Published On: February 17, 2022Last Updated: May 2, 20245.3 min read

This Presidents’ Day, we honor the nuance and complexity within our history and leaders.

While many people know that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) spearheaded and oversaw the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, fewer realize that the concept was brought to America by his cousin, President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, in the early 1900s.

National Progressive Convention in 1912

President Teddy Roosevelt formed a third party in 1912 called the Progressive Party (also known as the “Bull Moose Party”) and ran for reelection after serving as president from 1901 through 1909. In the interim years, he had supported the Republican presidential nomination of future President William Howard Taft but was subsequently displeased with his presidency.

On the campaign trail for the election of 1912 (which he lost to President Woodrow Wilson), President Roosevelt gave a powerful speech at the Convention of the National Progressive Party where he declared “our aim should be the same in both State and Nation; that is, to use the Government as an efficient agency for the practical betterment of social and economic conditions throughout this land. There are other important things to be done, but this is the most important thing.” He continues:

As a people we cannot afford to let any group of citizens or any individual citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare… It is abnormal for any industry to throw back upon the community the human wreckage due to its wear and tear, and the hazzards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment, and old age should be provided for through insurance. This should be made a charge in whole or in part upon the industries the employer, the employee, and perhaps the people at large, to contribute severally in some degree. Wherever such standards are not met by given establishments, by given industries, are unprovided for by a legislature, or are balked by unenlightened courts, the workers are in jeopardy, the progressive employer is penalized, and the community pays a heavy cost in lessened efficiency and in misery. What Germany has done in the way of old age pensions or insurance should be studied by us, and the system adapted to our uses, with whatever modifications are rendered necessary by our different ways of life and habits of thought.

These lofty ideals had seeds sowed many years before in 1884. As recounted by historian Dr. Heather Cox Richardson, both Teddy Roosevelt’s wife and mother died hours apart on Valentine’s Day in 1884 two days after the birth of the couple’s first child. She writes:

Entry from the Diary of Theodore Roosevelt upon the death of his wife, Alice Lee Roosevelt

On February 14, 1884, Roosevelt slashed a heavy black X in his diary and wrote “The light has gone out of my life.” He refused ever to mention Alice again.

Roosevelt’s profound personal tragedy turned out to have national significance. The diseases that killed his wife and mother were diseases of filth and crowding—the hallmarks of the growing Gilded Age American cities. Mittie contracted typhoid from either food or water that had been contaminated by sewage, since New York City did not yet treat or manage either sewage or drinking water. Alice’s disease was probably caused by a strep infection, which incubated in the teeming city’s tenements, where immigrants, whose wages barely kept food on the table, crowded together.

Roosevelt had been interested in urban reform because he worried that incessant work and unhealthy living conditions threatened the ability of young workers to become good citizens. Now, though, it was clear that he, and other rich New Yorkers, had a personal stake in cleaning up the cities and making sure employers paid workers a living wage.

President Teddy Roosevelt’s political identity was forged through personal tragedy. Empathy is a powerful motivator. But there are limits to empathy. It requires personal experience.

The President’s sense of justice did not extend beyond white people, where his personal sphere of experience was bound. The Brownsville Incident in 1906 became a stain on his presidency, one that we’d be remiss to omit, even in an homage, during Black History Month. In the town of Brownsville, TX, white residents blamed the African American soldiers of the 25th Infantry stationed nearby for a local shooting that led to the death of a white resident an injury of another. Despite the soldiers’ claims of innocence, a lack of credible evidence, and a Texas court clearing them of wrongdoing, President Theodore Roosevelt discharged the entire regiment of 167 men dishonorably. The men lost everything – careers, salaries, pensions, and military honors. The President never apologized nor investigated the white soldiers who ‘witnessed’ the black soldiers in town. In 1970, journalist John Weaver investigated the incident himself and so compellingly illustrated their innocence that it led to a Congressional reversal of President Roosevelt’s order in 1972.

Further, FDR’s beloved Social Security Act of 1935 intentionally excluded most black and brown people from its protections by limiting its coverage to about half of the jobs in the economy – the jobs that white men typically held.

What can be learned from all of this? And what does it have to do with Social Security?

We’re living through a pandemic, and soon its endemicity and aftermath. These are surely years historians will analyze and interpret for decades to come. It’s easy to forget that the country we live in today, and the institutions in it we take for granted, were not for certain in their times of formation. Further, their initial forms are far from the forms they take today to fit our evolving needs and values as a society.

People, including presidents, are imperfect actors. This Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a step back to learn from history and see progress and its proponents more wholly. We’re going to need strong social systems in these next few years in a way that will test our society and leadership. It is up to each and every one of us to advocate for more economic protections and to remember that leaders are people and people are shaped by their experiences and limits.


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