Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition

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Who could be more American than former president Theodore Roosevelt? You might be surprised if you listen to the next Liberty Law Talk with Jean Yarbrough on her newest book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. Winner of the American Political Science Association’s Richard Neustadt Award, Yarbrough’s book is an incredible study of Roosevelt as student at Columbia, as an accomplished historical writer, and as a statesman.

We might conclude, Yarbrough observes, that it is Roosevelt’s robust American nationalism, his vigorous spirit, and his environmentalism that produced our national parks which marks him as a prominent president. Indeed, his place on Mount Rushmore, where he sits with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, seems strange otherwise. Unless we count his prescient leadership of an emerging American nation departing from its decentralized past as worthy of remembrance, then it becomes difficult to find his great stature.

On this progressive legacy of Roosevelt, Yarbrough focuses much of her scholarly attention. Roosevelt publicly professed admiration for the American Constitution and the ideas of our founding, but departed from them as president, particularly in his second term. He embraced the administrative state before Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt found no real limits to state power, and believed the federal government indispensable in the active management of the economy. He wanted presidential power to become more, an embodiment of the American people. Redistribution of wealth also had his support. In his New Nationalism speech he stated: “We [the government] should permit it [wealth] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.” This is the Teddy Roosevelt we need a clearer understanding of, and Yarbrough has certainly provided it.

Jean M. Yarbrough is Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College and author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.

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