A Charter of Democracy (excerpt) – Speech by former president Theodore Roosevelt

Speech before the Ohio Constitutional Convention | February 21, 1912

Full speech available here.


I believe in pure democracy. With Lincoln, I hold that “this country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it.” We Progressives believe that the people have the right, the power, and the duty to protect themselves and their own welfare; that human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master, of the people. We believe that unless representative government does absolutely represent the people it is not representative government at all. We test the worth of all men and all measures by asking how they contribute to the welfare of the men, women, and children of whom this nation is composed. We are engaged in one of the great battles of the age—long contest waged against privilege on behalf of the common welfare. We hold it a prime duty of the people to free our government from the control of money in politics. For this purpose we advocate, not as ends in themselves, but as weapons in the hands of the people, all governmental devices which will make the representatives of the people more easily and certainly responsible to the people’s will.


I am emphatically a believer in constitutionalism, and because of this fact I no less emphatically protest against any theory that would make of the constitution a means of thwarting instead of securing the absolute right of the people to rule themselves and to provide for their social and industrial well-being.

All constitutions, those of the States no less than that of the nation, are designed, and must be interpreted and administered so as to fit human rights.


The object of every American constitution worth calling such must be what it is set forth to be in the preamble to the National Constitution, “to establish justice,” that is, to secure justice as between man and man by means of genuine popular self-government. If the constitution is successfully invoked to nullify the effort to remedy injustice, it is proof positive either that the constitution needs immediate amendment or else that it is being wrongfully and improperly construed.

I therefore very earnestly ask you clearly to provide in this constitution means which will enable the people readily to amend it if at any point it works injustice, and also means which will permit the people themselves by popular vote, after due deliberation and discussion, but finally and without appeal, to settle what the proper construction of any constitutional point is.

It is often said that ours is a government of checks and balances. But this should only mean that these checks and balances obtain as among the several different kinds of representatives of the people — judicial, executive, and legislative to whom the people have delegated certain portions of their power. It does not mean that the people have parted with their power or cannot resume it. The “division of powers” is merely the division among the representatives of the powers delegated to them; the term must not be held to mean that the people have divided their power with their delegates. The power is the people’s, and only the people’s. It is right and proper that provision should be made rendering it necessary for the people to take ample time to make up their minds on any point; but there should also be complete provision to have their decision put into immediate and living effect when it has thus been deliberately and definitely reached.

I hold it to be the duty of every public servant, and of every man who in public or private life holds a position of leadership in thought or action, to endeavor honestly and fearlessly to guide his fellow countrymen to right decisions; but I emphatically dissent from the view that it is either wise or necessary to try to devise methods which under the Constitution will automatically prevent the people from deciding for themselves what governmental action they deem just and proper.

It is impossible to invent constitutional devices which will prevent the popular will from being effective for wrong without also preventing it from being effective for right.

The only safe course to follow in this great American democracy is to provide for making the popular judgment really effective.

When this is done, then it is our duty to see that the people, having the full power, realize their heavy responsibility for exercising that power aright.

But it is a false constitutionalism, a false statesmanship, to endeavor by the exercise of a perverted ingenuity to seem to give the people full power and at the same time to trick them out of it. Yet this is precisely what is done in every case where the State permits its representatives, whether on the bench or in the legislature or in executive office, to declare that it has not the power to right grave social wrongs, or that any of the officers created by the people, and rightfully the servants of the people, can set themselves up to be the masters of the people. Constitution-makers should make it clear beyond shadow of doubt that the people in their legislative capacity have the power to enact into law any measure they deem necessary for the betterment of social and industrial conditions. The wisdom of framing any particular law of this kind is a proper subject of debate; but the power of the people to enact the law should not be subject to debate. To hold the contrary view is to be false to the cause of the people, to the cause of American democracy.


The ends of good government in our democracy are to secure by genuine popular rule a high average of moral and material well-being among our citizens.


You framers of this constitution be careful so to frame it that under it the people shall leave themselves free to do whatever is necessary in order to help the farmers of the State to get for themselves and their wives and children not only the benefits of better farming but also those of better business methods and better conditions of life on the farm.

Moreover, shape your constitutional action so that the people will be able through their legislative bodies, or, failing that, by direct popular vote, to provide workmen’s compensation acts, to regulate the hours of labor for children and for women, to provide for their safety while at work, and to prevent overwork or work under unhygienic or unsafe conditions. See to it that no restrictions are placed upon legislative powers that will prevent the enactment of laws under which your people can promote the general welfare, the common good. Thus only will the “general welfare” clause of our Constitution become a vital force for progress, instead of remaining a mere phrase. This also applies to the police powers of the government. Make it perfectly clear that on every point of this kind it is your intention that the people shall decide for themselves how far the laws to achieve their purposes shall go, and that their decision shall be binding upon every citizen in the State, official or non-official, unless, of course, the Supreme Court of the nation in any given case decides otherwise.


Now, gentlemen, in closing and in thanking you for your courtesy, let me add one word. Keep clearly in view what are the fundamental ends of government. Remember that methods are merely the machinery by which these ends are to be achieved. I hope that not only you and I but all our people may ever remember that while good laws are necessary, while it is necessary to have the right kind of governmental machinery, yet that the all-important matter is to have the right kind of man behind the law.

A State cannot rise without proper laws, but the best laws that the wit of man can devise will amount to nothing if the State does not contain the right kind of man, the right kind of woman.

A good constitution, and good laws under the constitution, and fearless and upright officials to administer the law — all these are necessary; but the prime requisite in our national life is, and must always be, the possession by the average citizen of the right kind of character.

Our aim must be the moralization of the individual, of the government, of the people as a whole. We desire the moralization not only of political conditions but of industrial conditions, so that every force in the community, individual and collective, may be directed toward securing for the average man, and average woman, a higher and better and fuller life’ in the things of the body no less than those of the mind and the soul.