Not all the famous Roosevelts who graced the American political scene were Democrats. One of them, Theodore Roosevelt, was a Republican. He was a great enough president to merit immortalization, alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, on the monumental sculpture masterpiece at Mount Rushmore.
We mention T.R. now because his views on the graduated income tax and, more importantly, on the graduated estate tax have become matters of hot dispute within Congress and within the Republican Party. In 1910, in a speech at the dedication of the John Brown monument in Osawatomie, Kan., T.R. outlined his vision for the nation in a program he called the “Square Deal,” a precursor to the New Deal. “I believe,” he said, “in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”
Addressing an audience made up largely of Civil War veterans, Roosevelt quoted Lincoln on the subject of income distribution: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could not have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
In 1912, two years after T.R.’s Osawatomie speech, Woodrow Wilson was elected president. He was only the second Democrat to be elected to the White House since the Civil War ended in 1865, the other being Grover Cleveland. Under Wilson, the Constitution was amended to allow an income tax, and the amendment was applied to enact an income and estate tax.
The great irony implicit in this recount of the graduated income and estate tax has been the changing roles of our two major parties. Despite the great contributions made by Republicans in the past for the income and estate taxes, Republican agitators still denigrate the role of these pioneers by calling the estate tax the “death tax,” a sort of punishment meted out to individuals because they dared to die.
Fortunately, there are still a few Republicans in the Senate who honor the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt enough to stand by his legacy. Breaking with Bush, they voted with the Democrats this month to defeat Bush’s attempt to destroy the estate tax. Bush, however, is nothing if not determined. Stay tuned.