President Theodore Roosevelt loathed the idea of placing the words "In God We Trust" on coins. He was irate at the cheapening of religious sentiment and the cynical attempt to elevate money to the level of the transcendent. But his arguments failed to convince Congress, which voted in 1907 to put the slogan on American coins.
TR's beef was not with God but with the accepted notion that the wealthy American businessman epitomized the God-fearing citizen. Roosevelt knew better, and spent 20 years fighting against the malefactors of great wealth.
His eyes narrowing, his teeth clacking, his face flushed with anger, over and over again, Roosevelt spewed out denunciations of the flagrantly dishonest businessmen who were "cynically and brutally indifferent to the interests of the people."
What would this president, the greatest Republican president of the 20th century, have thought of the scandals rocking Wall Street today? Collusion between Enron and Arthur Andersen would not have surprised him. On the contrary, a major part of his energy was reserved for flaying the highly paid hired guns of the business elite, the lawyers, accountants, and corrupt politicians who fought reform.
"Every measure for honesty in business that has been passed during the last six years," Roosevelt railed in 1908, "has been opposed by these men."
Did TR have a remedy? Schoolchildren learn that he was a trustbuster, but in truth he didn't care about the size of corporations. "What I am interested in is getting the hand of government on all of them this is what I want," he said. He called for the strict regulation of business, not its destruction.
But Roosevelt was interested in far more. It was not enough to establish rules and throw a few malefactors in jail. He knew there would have to be deeper reform, a radical reconceptualization of the ethics of business and the subordination of private wealth to the welfare of society.
"I stand for the square deal," he declared in 1910, explaining that he was not advocating mere fair play under the present rules, but rather the transformation of those very rules. Property itself would have to give way to a higher value, that of "human welfare," and would be "subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."