What are we to make of Teddy Roosevelt?

Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican.  He was also a Progressive.  Showing that contemporary categories don’t always apply to issues of even the recent past, people today on both the left and the right don’t know quite what to make of the Rough Rider.  Some conservatives blame him for the mindset that gave us big government.  Others hail him as a champion of “family values” and see him as the original “social conservative.”  After the jump is an excerpt from a four-way debate sponsored by the Claremont Institute.

From The Claremont Institute – Upon Further Review: A CRB Discussion of Theodore Roosevelt:

[R. J.] Pestritto: Thanks for the opportunity to expand upon some points on T.R., which I made in my recent CRB review of Jean Yarbrough’s fine book. The passage from Jean’s essay strikes me as consistent both with T.R.’s major political speeches and with his more philosophic and historical writings. If we break it down, there are several key parts that bear further examination.

T.R.—and the Progressives generally—relied upon an evolutionary account of human nature to justify loosening the constitutional protections against what the American Founders believed were the permanent dangers of faction. The Progressive Era was certainly not the first time in American political history that a progressive argument about human nature had been made. In Federalist 6, Alexander Hamilton finds himself rebutting the progressive notion of human nature that had been put forward by those who believed human beings, as a result of the Enlightenment, were no longer in need of a strong national government to referee factious disputes. Hamilton characterized this view as “utopian,” and pointed to the permanent factiousness in human nature that could be found in historical examples both ancient and contemporary. This is why the evolutionary thinking of the 19th century was so influential on the likes of T.R. (as Jean’s book does a nice job of showing in its treatment of his historical essays)—it helped to provide a foundation for contending that the focus of the founders’ political science on the problem of majority tyranny had been rendered outdated by historical progress. In his 1912 speech on “The Right of the People to Rule,” T.R. expressed his frustration that constitutional restraints on the unfettered rule of the majority continued to hamper progressive policy aims: “I have scant patience with this talk of tyranny of the majority.”

As to freeing elected officials from constitutional restraint, T.R. was certainly impatient with constitutional limits on his own authority. He posited a view of constitutionalism directly at odds with the enumerated powers structure of the American Constitution (the idea, in other words, that the government has only those powers granted to it through the Constitution’s enumeration of its powers), posing instead a plenary conception of federal power (that is, that the government may do whatever it wishes, so long as there is nothing specific in the Constitution that prohibits it). This plenary view—rejected explicitly by Hamilton in Federalist 84 as a throwback to the days of monarchy—was the central part of T.R.’s “Stewardship Theory” of executive government, expounded in his Autobiography.

This view that the president, as both the embodiment of the people’s will and the steward of their needs, ought to exercise plenary power is interesting in light of the final part of the Public Interest statement—the trust in enlightened administrators. T.R.—as his New Nationalism program indicates—advocated vigorous and centralized government by administrative experts. He seems not to have perceived that expert administration could be at odds with the plenary power of a popular leader. Woodrow Wilson, in his “Study of Administration,” seems to have understood this difficulty much more clearly than T.R., who seems to have believed that a popular president could keep the bureaucracy in line. This belief may have had something to do with the fact that T.R. fully expected himself—and his friends—to be the leaders of the people. . . .

[Robert]  Patterson: For a certain subgroup of conservative political theorists, chipping Theodore Roosevelt off Mount Rushmore is a full-time preoccupation—even obsession. One such scholar is Jean Yarbrough, who exhibits the same overconfidence shared by many of these conservatives who presume their understanding of fidelity to the Declaration and the Constitution exceeds that of all others.

From that high perch, she fails to grasp how the “founding principles” provided insufficient help to T.R.’s imperative and preeminent concern: nation-building. The challenges facing the 26th president were not necessarily more complex than those of the founders but were different: reducing the oppression of Jim Crow; quelling the radical ideologies emerging in response to industrialization; and dealing with a new economic force, the national corporation. Moreover, T.R. was reluctant to equate Americanism with allegiance to political or philosophical ideals. He focused more on social and biological realities. As Allan Carlson notes, by placing the child-rich family at the centerpiece of American identity, the devoted father of six children inspired a movement that predates today’s political conservatism: social conservatism.

Yarbrough understates all these achievements. Because T.R. was a progressive—and because progressivism was the prominent political force of his generation—she claims that he drank uncritically from that well. Like all presidents, Roosevelt was a creature of his time, but he was far more a pro-active challenger than a passive captive of the reigning beliefs that she identifies. Indefatigable and perhaps the most intellectually engaged of American presidents, the Rough Rider was his own man: he carried water for no rote ideology.

T.R. may have been enamored with Darwin in his youth, but he forcefully rejected Social Darwinism as an adult. As Carlson also observes, Roosevelt regularly mounted the bully pulpit to denounce the “scientific” racists and their contention that natural selection and conflict would perfect the human race. Instead, T.R. posited cooperation and altruism—rooted in maternal love and affection—at the centerpiece of human progress, which he believed occurred in spite of natural selection. Nor did he entertain illusions of man overcoming his selfish nature, witness T.R.’s harsh critique of his privileged peers for failing to procreate in sufficient numbers.

With other progressives, T.R. agreed that changes in American life since the late 18th century warranted social-insurance legislation like Social Security—and constitutional amendments like the 16th. But Roosevelt never considered the Constitution a relic nor did he suggest that elected officials could ignore its constraints. He harbored no more reservations with the Constitution than modern-day conservatives who offer their pet amendments to deal with problems the founders could not foresee.

Roosevelt did, however, object to an abstract rendering of the founding documents, including a notion of “unalienable rights” that blatantly favored the “malefactors of great wealth”—and slavery at an earlier time—while ignoring the plight of the “average American” or those Abraham Lincoln called the “plain people.” Moreover, he presciently warned of the grave danger of a Supreme Court thwarting the will of “We the People” by striking down commonsense legislation and inventing “rights” not found in the text of the Constitution. Yarbrough can surely disagree, but she has no right to suggest that T.R. or his policies marred the founding charter or weakened our constitutional system.

Finally, T.R.’s dismissal of majority tyranny as “no longer a threat” was no uncritical acceptance of the Zeitgeist but an astute recognition that the crisis of his day actually arose from the tyranny of elites—a lesson conservatives seeking their way in the 21st century would do well to heed.

I urge you to read the entire debate, which was occasioned by a new book on Roosevelt written by one of the participants, Jean M. Yarbrough’s Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition (American Political Thought).

But is it possible to think outside of our boxes and re-enter the categories of Roosevelt’s day as a way to break out of our current political dead-ends?  Could we recover what Roosevelt saw as a connection between building strong families and programs like Social Security, trust-busting, and worker protection?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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