Jean Yarbrough: TR and the American Political Tradition

Jean Yarbrough is Professor of Government and Gary M. Pendy, Sr. Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College. Professor Yarbrough’s new book — Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition — has been 12 years in the making. Beautifully written, it answers the longstanding need for a book that seriously examines the political thought of Theodore Roosevelt and accurately places him in the American political tradition.

This is an important book. The official publication date of the book is tomorrow, though it is available now. Steve Hayward will have more to say about the book in due course. In the meantime, we have invited Professor Yarbrough to write something bringing the book to the attention of our readers and she has graciously responded. Professor Yarbrough writes:

Looking down on America from Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt may well be, as he once observed of Abraham Lincoln, “the most real of the dead presidents.” But while most Americans know something of Theodore Roosevelt’s action-packed, adventure-filled life, they know very little about his political thought and its place in the American political tradition. Even now, as we approach the centennial of his Progressive Party run for the presidency, and with another watershed election looming, Roosevelt’s political thought still has not received the attention it deserves.

Much of the blame for this can be tied to academic historians. As Stanford historian David M. Kennedy observed, most members of his guild regard themselves as “the political heirs of the Progressive tradition,” and it is they who control the narrative. Richard Hofstadter set the tone in 1948 when he dismissed Roosevelt’s ideas as “a bundle of philistine conventionalities, the intellectual fiber of a muscular and combative Polonius.” In his view, Roosevelt’s belated embrace of progressivism revealed his underlying conservatism. TR, Hofstadter charged, did not “bleed” for exploited workers, but merely sought to avoid class warfare– as if that were a contemptible thing. Nevertheless, the charges stuck.

Later historians, even those more sympathetic to the Rough Rider, added their own gloss. Roosevelt’s “conservatism” now explained why he had no “body of principled theory.” “Conservatism” also accounted for why Roosevelt offered no “very cheerful or reassuring notions about the meaning of life” or thought much about “happiness.” Big ideas were the province of liberals. Inevitably, a reaction set in and historians began to look more favorably on Roosevelt’s role in the progressive movement. But they focused on results, not theories. The policies Roosevelt offered in 1912 would move the country closer to the European social welfare state, and that was all that mattered.

But it is not just that historians have shied away from examining Roosevelt’s ideas. TR’s speeches and writings send out mixed signals, making it difficult to situate his thought in the American political tradition. For even at the height of his progressivism, he insisted that he was a “conservative,” promoting an admittedly “radical programme,” but in a “sane” and “sensible” manner. What’s more, he continued to cite his national-minded heroes, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln in defense of his positions, and far too many scholars have taken him at his word. Clarity is needed here. By conservative, I mean someone who wishes to conserve the political principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, especially the commitment to the protection of individual natural rights through the establishment of energetic, but limited, republican government.

Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition is informed by the idea that the statesmen Roosevelt admired, strong nationalists all, provided political principles that, suitably adapted, were still useful in his day, as they remain so in ours, had he seriously considered them. He did not. Perhaps this is because Roosevelt never encountered a thoughtful treatment of American political principles in college or law school, and the ideas to which he was introduced (Teutonic “germ theory,” evolutionary biology, historicism, and German idealism) could not easily be reconciled with the ideals of his heroes. So, even before TR became a progressive, his views diverged in key respects from the American statesmen he most admired. In this most “Lincoln-like sense,” Theodore Roosevelt was never a conservative.

These differences were already visible in Roosevelt’s histories, published in the 1880s and 1890s. Rather than focus on the principles of the founding, Roosevelt chose to emphasize the three-hundred year unplanned movement of the English-speaking peoples as they spread out across America, unconsciously replicating their medieval Teutonic “folk-moots.” In place of compact and consent in the service of protecting individual rights, his was a narrative that focused on conquest and expansion, cast in racial and Darwinian terms.

As a rising Republican reformer and public intellectual reviewing the most important books of the day, Roosevelt allied himself with his nationalist heroes, but here, too, his positions subtly diverged from the men he claimed most to admire. In contrast to the view of human nature set forth in The Federalist, which emphasized the centrality of self-interest for most men, Roosevelt already showed signs of believing that the majority of individuals were capable of acting from disinterested motives. As a scion of “old money,” he was always more hostile to the commercial republic than Hamilton, dismissing commercial ideals as “mean and sordid.” And although he frequently cited Washington in support of military preparedness, it is not clear that the colonial “expansion” (imperialism, really) that Roosevelt supported after the Spanish-American War could be reconciled with the principles of republican self-government embraced by his heroes.

During his presidency, and especially toward the end of his second term, Roosevelt departed from the political principles of the founders in a different way. He now asserted that limited government in the service of individual rights was inadequate to meet the problems of the day, but offered no arguments to support this claim. Although he had toyed with seizing privately owned coalmines during the anthracite coal strike of 1902, citing Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War as precedent, the successful resolution of the crisis obviated the need for such “emergency” (and clearly unconstitutional) measures.

After his landslide re-election in 1905, TR unveiled a flurry of new proposals aimed at increasing the federal government’s power over the economy. In defense of his regulatory regime, he claimed that the national government possessed “inherent powers,” effectively dismissing The Federalist’s arguments for energetic, but limited government. When that interpretation failed to gain traction, he developed his stewardship theory of executive power, arguing that as the “steward” of the people, the president had both the right and duty to do whatever the needs of the nation required unless the Constitution or the laws expressly prohibited such action. Roosevelt’s novel theory far exceeded the Jackson-Lincoln view he claimed to be following and unmoored presidential power from the Constitution.

Roosevelt, however, was just getting started. As insurgents within his party gained force, the president concluded that he had no choice but to shift further to the left. He fought hard to establish regulatory control over the entire industrial economy, modeled on the powers the ICC exercised over the railroads. Had the proposed legislation succeeded, it would have put in place a statist regulatory regime, with the government exercising primary control over all businesses operating in interstate commerce. In a parting shot, Roosevelt published two essays in the month that he left the White House, setting forth where he and his supporters could and could not work with the socialists. Taken together, the essays made clear how far he had moved from the principles of the founders.

Convinced that William Howard Taft, his hand-picked successor, had failed to carry on his legacy, Roosevelt called for a “New Nationalism” at Osawatomie, Kansas in August 1910. Although the address repeated many of the positions he had taken in the waning years of his presidency, thanks to arguments supplied by Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life, his proposals took on a sharper theoretical edge. For the first time, Roosevelt explained what he meant when he said that property rights must be justified by “service” to the nation. From now on, every individual would hold his property “subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” Thus, even as he cited the words of Lincoln, Roosevelt’s New Nationalism planted the axiom that government, and not the individual, was the source and therefore the determinant, of all property rights.

Up to this point, Roosevelt had relied principally on an expanded cadre of high-minded bureaucrats, less constrained by the constitutional separation of powers, to promote his progressive program. But in 1911, he backed the efforts of western insurgents to introduce direct democratic reforms, including the initiative, referendum, and recall. Direct democracy would open a second avenue of attack on the constitutional order, effectively closing the space that the Framers had placed between the people and their representatives. Tossing his hat into the ring at the Ohio Constitutional Convention, Roosevelt declared his support for the most controversial of these measures, judicial recall of state court decisions, which cost him Republican support.

Denied his party’s nomination in an ugly floor fight, Roosevelt bolted and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. In his speech before the Progressive Party Nominating Convention, Roosevelt called for the establishment of a new “contract with the people” that would supersede the social compact theory of the Declaration. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which holds that individuals enter into a compact with each other to form a government that will protect their inalienable rights, the contract Roosevelt envisioned was between the people and their government. The task of government would no longer be merely to guarantee the conditions under which individuals might innocently exercise their rights. Rather, government would now become the source of the people’s expanded rights. The deal is this: in exchange for granting the state increased powers, citizens are now “entitled” to new rights that will promote their moral and material well-being. What they give up in individual liberty they gain back in security and social justice, defined as a more equitable distribution of the wealth and social security from the ravages of unemployment, illness and old age.

If this sounds familiar, it is because Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation for the century of progressive reforms that followed and, thus, the crisis we now face. As Americans ponder an uncertain future, it is not Roosevelt, but his Rushmore companions who offer the best hope for the perpetuation of our republican institutions.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.