President Theodore Roosevelt on the Importance of Fighting Corruption

Last week, I posted some information about a new working paper that I jointly authored with Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar on anticorruption reform in the United States over the 1865-1941 period. Although one of our main arguments in that paper is that the process of anticorruption reform in the United States was long, slow, and involved many different actors at all levels (in contrast to the image of the “big bang” reform driven by a single powerful figure, like a Lee Kwan Yew or a Mikheil Saakashvili), there were indeed some periods, and some leaders, who were especially important to the anticorruption fight. One of those leaders was undoubtedly President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was a complicated figure with complicated legacy, but with respect to anticorruption, he was a significant leader of the reform movement. Since today (September 14) is the 119th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency, I thought I’d use the occasion to share some of my favorite remarks of his on the subject of corruption The specific context of these remarks, which came in a December 1903 address to Congress, concerned his administration’s efforts to secure the extradition of bribe-taking officials who had fled the country, but President Roosevelt’s sweeping rhetoric sounds like it could have come from a modern anticorruption reformer in a particularly fiery mood:

There can be no crime more serious than bribery. Other offenses violate one law while corruption strikes at the foundation of all law. Under our form of Government all authority is vested in the people and by them delegated to those who represent them in official capacity. There can be no offense heavier than that of him in whom such a sacred trust has been reposed, who sells it for his own gain and enrichment; and no less heavy is the offense of the bribe giver. He is worse than the thief, for the thief robs the individual, while the corrupt official plunders an entire city or State. He is as wicked as the murderer, for the murderer may only take one life against the law, while the corrupt official and the man who corrupts the official alike aim at the assassination of the commonwealth itself. Government of the people, by the people, for the people will perish from the face of the earth if bribery is tolerated. The givers and takers of bribes stand on an evil pre-eminence of infamy. The exposure and punishment of public corruption is an honor to a nation, not a disgrace. The shame lies in toleration, not in correction…. If we fail to do all that in us lies to stamp out corruption we can not escape our share of responsibility for the guilt. The first requisite of successful self-government is unflinching enforcement of the law and the cutting out of corruption.