I’m working up toward a Christmas book gift list for the Claremont Review in a few more days, and the process has made me press ahead further into Jean Yarbrough’s indispensable new book, mentioned here previously, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. There are lots of TR books out there—some of them even pretty good, though most are not that good on the question of exploring and untangling his political thought in depth. Yarbrough’s is.
Yarbrough goes further than virtually all other authors in particular on TR’s intellectual background, with a fascinating chapter on “The Education of Theodore Roosevelt.” I’ve lately been fascinated by the question of the educational backgrounds of presidents. (For example, read Calvin Coolidge’s account of his Amherst education in his autobiography if you want to see a proper education properly received.) Yarbough has figured out what courses TR took and what books he read at Harvard, and then wrestles with why he didn’t seem to absorb what others did from reading, for example, Frederic Bastiat, or knowing about The Federalist (which he did not read at Harvard). For example:
As he sought to attract a younger generation of college-educated men to political careers, Roosevelt had one bit of advice: “Read The Federalist—it is one of the greatest—I would hardly know whether it would not be right to say that it is on the whole the greatest book dealing with applied politics there has ever been.” . . .
Yet for all his praise of The Federalist, it is worth noting that Roosevelt himself had little to say about the particular theory of republicanism it expounded. He had not read the work in college, and it is not clear when he first sat down with it, or how carefully he considered its arguments.
One of the things Yarbrough is on to that very few people have ever sufficiently noticed is how the so-called “Social Darwinists”—supposed conservatives, remember—actually played a significant role in undermining the central philosophy of the American Founding, and how “Social Darwinism” was picked up by the left-Progressives like Woodrow Wilson. Short sample:
Although [William Graham] Sumner is often described by both his supporters and critics as a “classical liberal” in the tradition of John Locke and the founders, this characterization is misleading because it focuses exclusively on Sumner’s defense of limited government and individual liberty, while ignoring the Darwinian ground of his argument. . .
Yet Sumner’s objection was not simply that natural rights has strayed too far from their eighteenth century moorings. His Darwinian view of nature was fundamentally at odds with the founders’ moral understanding of the “law of nature and nature’s God.”
There’s a lot more here to wrestle with, and because of TR’s in-between character (in-between left-Progressivism and more decent liberal reformism), understanding him more clearly is useful to seeing our way ahead today.