The Similarities of 1912 and 2012

Jul 11, 2012

In the summer, our interns get a chance to explore our collections and share their findings and thoughts with you, our readers. Here is an entry from Sara from Washington!

In my first month of cataloging I have been working with letters and telegrams written in late August to early September 1912. I have come across very few personal letters of Theodore Roosevelt so, unlike other interns, I have yet to get a sense of Roosevelt as a person. However, what I have dealt with overwhelmingly are the letters of Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary, Frank Harper. He responded to the daily letters coming in from all across the country (Spokane, Washington to Vermont to Florida to Los Angeles, California) from the citizenry. Some letters were from fellow Progressives asking for speaking dates or sending clippings from local papers showing support in their area. Other letters, however, were just common voters asking for more information on what Roosevelt and the newly minted Progressive Party could do for them.

At first I was impressed with just how much mail Frank Harper responded to in one day.  I never thought I’d get to the end of the correspondence from August 29th. However, as I proceeded through the next week of letters I was struck by the subject and tone of some the more lengthy responses. The thoughts on businesses and politicians could easily have come from some modern media source.  One letter in particular caused me pause. Frank Harper responds to an inquiry by a small business owner from Braintree Massachusetts, Wallace Jones about the Progressive Party.

Letter from Frank Harper to Wallace O. Jones

Detail, Letter from Frank Harper to Wallace O. Jones, September 5, 1912. From the Library of Congress Manuscripts division.

Harper wrote: “One of the fundamental questions of the present day is the urgent necessity of better economic conditions among the mass of our people and it is only by breaking away from the old alliance between the bosses and the big special interests that the ordinary man, the small business man, the workman and the farmer can hope in any way to better his present conditions. It is the alliance of the big special interests with the big crooked politicians that is responsible for a good deal of the trouble of today and by your voting for one set of bosses at one time and changing to another set at another time, you are doing nothing. The only way out is to declare against the bosses of both these parties and in that way renounce the crooked alliance of the politicians and big business men, and place in the hands of the Progressives a power which they will be able to wield in the interests not of any particular few but of the whole people.”

The truth of Harper’s words rings true even though a century separates us. Once again the common people worry about the country’s economic conditions while businessmen with deep pockets funnel as much money as they want into Super PACs to help fund their favored presidential candidate.  With the polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties, many voters are beginning to question if the two parties represent a majority of the populace or only small invested interest groups.

I have mulled over these similarities between 1912 and the present over the past month. While many of the issues the Progressive Party stood for such as direct election of senators, woman suffrage, and tougher labor laws were achieved generations ago, others related to business, investments, and campaign finance are still as relevant to us today as to Harper, Roosevelt, and Jones 100 years ago.

I urge you like Frank Harper did to so many curious citizens in 1912 to read the Progressive Party Platform to find out more.

Part of me shudders to think what Theodore Roosevelt would think of us now, and another part wishes he was here to lead another progressive push.

Sara has just completed the first year of her MLIS degree at the University of Washington at Seattle. She is also an intern this summer with the South Asian American Digital Archive. Sara has been interested in digital archives since attending Indiana State University where she received a bachelor of arts degree in history.
Posted by Sara Beckman on Jul 11, 2012 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)  |  Share this post

Biff said,

Very enlightening. I agree with you, I wish we had a leader like Theodore Roosevelt in our time. I believe things would be changed for the better. It is amazing how so much has changed in 100 years, yet so much has stayed the same. Again thanks for the insight.

Ric said,

I feel as if things really haven't changed, except technology perhaps. It seems if the people of this country still don't trust or really believe in our government and are still frustrated with the amount of deception that we are led to believe. Thanks for the article, glad to know I'm not the only one.

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