Theodore Roosevelt’s Innovative Constitutionalism

Theodore Roosevelt

It is an arresting image on Mount Rushmore:  Theodore Roosevelt  the Rough Rider, man of action, and lover of his country, taking his place alongside three of the greatest men to occupy the presidency – men whom he professed to admire and sought to emulate:  Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.  And the centennial of Roosevelt’s rise to national prominence led to a spate of biographies and other studies evaluating his presidency and its impact on the nation.  Roosevelt’s image is, for many, nearly irresistible.  To many Americans, at least, his patriotic nationalism, his efforts to establish a system of national parks, and his assertion of American exceptionalism qualified him for inclusion on Mount Rushmore.  And most (though not all) recent studies have generally supported that view.  However, of the many studies to appear in the last fifteen years, none has made a thorough assessment of his political thought and action as it related to those he claimed to admire most: the founding generation, especially the authors of The Federalist and Abraham Lincoln – who Roosevelt cited early and often in his political career.

Fortunately, Jean Yarbrough’s fine study of Roosevelt’s political thought and career has remedied that.  Though by her own admission this is not an “intellectual biography,” she has nonetheless skillfully woven together biographical sketches from Roosevelt’s life that, combined with her thorough, systematic analysis of his words and actions in light of the men he professed to admire, suggest the extent to which he in fact strayed from their understanding of limited, republican government.  In the end, Yarbrough concludes, Roosevelt might lay claim to his spot on Mount Rushmore by virtue of his “fighting spirit and love of his country” or his “appreciation of national greatness,” but not for his faithfulness to the principles of the founding which, she contends, he either failed to understand or, by the time of his New Nationalism, dismissed altogether.

As the author notes, where the ideas central to the founding are concerned, Roosevelt had little if any chance to study them at the university.  His education coincided with the fascination for German statecraft and theories of history that typified numerous graduate programs in the United States.  Though he recommended The Federalist as necessary reading for a truly educated citizenry, he evidently never engaged in a close study of its central ideas.  Rather, he was schooled in such novel developments as Herbert Baxter Adams’s Teutonic Germ Theory and German statecraft.  By his own admission, Roosevelt showed a predilection for German culture, and some of his professors, such as John Burgess at Columbia, reinforced that with theories of historical progress and a clear rejection of natural right as a basis for sound government.  Reflecting the evolutionary development of Turner’s frontier thesis, Roosevelt maintained that justice was applied according to the particular stage of a given race’s development.  Thus there was no point in applying concepts of natural right to the Indians who, given their primitive culture, were not to be accorded the treatment of civilized peoples.  Tellingly, Yarbrough notes that Roosevelt eventually distanced himself from even Burgess, whose support for limited government was inimical to progressive thought.

His criticisms of applying notions of “abstract right” to Indians notwithstanding, the young Roosevelt still held the Constitution in high regard.  An accomplished and well-published  historian, he could still criticize what he regarded as essentially demagogic appeals by Andrew Jackson in his war on the Bank of the United States and his subsequent disregard for the Constitution as he sought to implement his removal policy.  As late as his 1886 biography of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Yarbrough points out, Roosevelt still admitted the foresight of the Founders in providing safeguards against majority tyranny.  And his biography of Gouverneur Morris was replete with praise for the Constitution, lauding the Framers’ wisdom in providing a clear, straightforward means for expanding the republic’s size through the incorporation of future states.  Nevertheless, as the author makes clear, his explanation of America’s origins and development was a curious amalgam of professed respect for the founding along with a high regard for the influences of Anglo-Saxonism, Teutonic Germ Theory, and Social Darwinism. It was, therefore, not surprising that Roosevelt eventually turned “away from the natural rights philosophy of the founders.”

It was, however, in the realm of politics rather than history where Roosevelt – the man of action – began to put his ideas into practice.  He got his first chance to work at municipal and civil service reform as a member of the New York legislature.  It was also here, Yarbrough demonstrates, that he began some of his most vehement criticisms, not simply of the Robber Barons, but of businessmen and industrialists generally.  There was little indication that Roosevelt seriously considered the possibility that this group might contribute legitimately to the development of the great nation he desired.  Too often, he contended, “mere” money-making demonstrated its enervating ability, destroying the “manly virtues” he wished to cultivate.

As regards civil service reform, Yarbrough convincingly argues that Roosevelt’s position on administration was completely at odds with that found in The Federalist.  He in fact charted a course that Woodrow Wilson would later perfect:  the separation of politics from administration.  Here he displayed immense faith in the ability and willingness of political leaders to choose men of character who were sufficiently disinterested to conduct the business of government without thought of personal gain – an optimistic view of human nature not shared by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention or by the authors of The Federalist.  Thus during these early years in politics, Roosevelt began to question seriously if the Constitution’s checks and balances could meet the needs of politics in the industrial age.

By the time he became president in 1901, Roosevelt was prepared to implement a vigorous use of executive authority – what he would later refer to as his “stewardship” theory of the presidency.  In fact, the kind of presidential activism to which he referred did not originate with him, but was evident as early as 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes used federal troops to quell the violence of the Great Railroad Strike.  Still, his intervention in the anthracite coal strike of 1902 is the best example of this early activism, which he justified as a necessary “broaden[ing] [of] the use of executive powers.”  Further, he likened his actions to Lincoln’s handling of various crises in the Civil War, most especially his suspension of habeas corpus.  However, as Yarbrough demonstrates, there is no similarity in their respective use and understanding of presidential power in these two circumstances.

Lincoln acted, not “for bringing about wholesale social changes,” but “for the purpose of preserving the Constitution.”  Though it may be apocryphal, Roosevelt’s supposed comment “To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!” serves to point up the difference. Moreover, by the time TR was battling on behalf of the Hepburn Act, he had considerable practical experience in forging public opinion by skillfully manipulating the press, as he had done in the administration’s antitrust proceedings against Standard Oil.   He rallied public opinion yet again in 1905 on behalf of railroad regulation.  Based on these and other examples, Yarbrough argues convincingly that it was thus Roosevelt, and not Woodrow Wilson, who originated the “rhetorical presidency” that so many of Roosevelt’s successors sought to emulate.  Further, she demonstrates, it was at this point that Roosevelt began to observe just how different the problems of the industrial age were from those of the early republic.  Thus Roosevelt here made a major departure from the founding, positing a necessary role for government that dwarfed “the most energetic of the Framers’ visions of limited government.”

Thus, Yarbrough contends, there is a discernible shift in Roosevelt’s rhetoric to a more clearly progressive agenda during his second term.  No longer content with a “Square Deal” of equitable regulation and pledged to only one elected term, he was free to pursue a more radical reform agenda than previously.  He attacked the wealthy with a renewed vigor, abandoned his previous belief that the courts provided a safeguard for liberty, and pushed for income and inheritance taxes.   However, true to his pledge not to seek another term, he turned to his successor, William Howard Taft, to carry the progressive banner into the future.

Though he left the country in 1909, Roosevelt was not long in returning to the political fray.  His dissatisfaction with Taft’s record convinced him that it was necessary to break his pledge and run for reelection.  It was while in Europe that he first read Herbert Croly’s Promise of American Life, a work which, Yarbrough contends, gave him “a firmer theoretical argument for his progressive vision” and provided the basis for his assertion of the New Nationalism, which proposed to essentially “change the rules of the game” by redistributing wealth.  Thus in his speech, “The “New Nationalism,” Roosevelt, speaking before a group of Union veterans, quoted liberally from Lincoln, assuring his audience (and the nation) of his essentially conservative goals. He nonetheless confirmed Yarbrough’s argument that he was worlds away from the constitutionalism of his heroes when he said:  “We [the government] should permit it [wealth] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”  His evolution from civil service reformer to radical progressive was complete.

William J. Atto is an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.

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Comments

  1. Lance Robinson says

    Sounds like a fine book. Even though I have not yet read it, it is apparent that she has benefited from the scholarship of others working the same fields in the past twenty years. One can only hope she has given them their due credit.

  2. Ken Masugi says

    Bill’s review and Jean’s book show the difficulty of thoughtful conservatives today who wish to challenge Progressivism root and branch and return to the founding ideals. They also show how easy (and dishonest) it is for the left to steal Lincoln for their purposes. Their scholarship (and that of Lance Robinson, above) form part of the essential arsenal of weapons for a series of continuing assaults on TR, Wilson, and their followers.

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