The Progressive movement continues to resonate in our national political debates. Liberals proudly call themselves “progressives” again–having thoroughly discredited the once respectable name “liberal”–while conservatives gradually have come to see this ideology, now a century old, as a deadly threat to what remains of republican liberty in this country. It has become common over the past few years, as the radicalism of the Obama agenda unfolded in stunning clarity, to see Progressivism attacked in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, on Fox News, and in many other conservative outlets. Those of us who had toiled away quietly for decades in our academic work on the Progressive Era suddenly found ourselves thrust into the conservative mainstream, as Obamaism and Progressivism have come to be understood as much the same thing. Charles Kesler’s new book, I Am the Change, is but one example, demonstrating that the president’s liberalism is a conscious outgrowth of several waves of Progressive “transformations” that came crashing down on America over the past hundred years.
All this makes it rather strange that Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1912 turned against his own Republican Party to become the standard-bearer of the new Progressive Party, remains an object of affection for some conservatives. Although he was among the most radical Progressives of his era–and his demagoguery eerily resembles Obama’s–some on the Right have been caught up in a romantic fascination with the 26th president.
Roosevelt is, at least superficially, a much more sympathetic figure than his progressive counterpart, Woodrow Wilson. When he was shot in the chest at the outset of a campaign speech in 1912, T.R. manfully insisted on sticking around to give the entire 90-minute speech before he would seek medical attention. No one would mistake Wilson for such a man, and it is unsurprising that Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality captivated the American mind in a way no other Progressive ever did. He was also known for unapologetically sticking up for American national interest abroad, for attacking what he thought was an out-of-control judiciary, and for a strong dose of moral seriousness–all things that conservatives admire. Yet these relatively superficial points pale in comparison to the fundamentals of Roosevelt’s principles and politics: fundamentals that show a deep antipathy to limited government, individual liberty, property rights, the free market, and just about anything else at the heart of the American constitutional order.
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As more scholarly attention has been paid to the Progressive Era, evidence has mounted of Roosevelt’s impatience with the Constitution. Sidney Milkis’s excellent Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009), for example, helped to demonstrate both T.R.’s strong hostility to natural-rights principles and his vaulting ambition. But Milkis’s focus was the 1912 election, not the whole of Roosevelt’s political thought and career.
Which makes Jean Yarbrough’s Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition even more welcome. This comprehensive, in-depth study should cure T.R. enthusiasts once and for all of any notion that their hero could ever be a model of conservative principle. Yarbrough, a professor of government at Bowdoin College and the author of a valuable study of Thomas Jefferson’s moral thought, American Virtues (1998), gives us Roosevelt in his own words, and her meticulous research shows how these words often place him at odds with the great figures of the American political tradition whom he professed to admire.
She begins with T.R.’S education, not simply for chronological reasons, but because Roosevelt was a serious thinker, who imbibed in college and law school ideas radically at odds with the American tradition. His drive to reform and remake American government came, in other words, not simply from the political opportunism of a skilled politician, but from deeply held principles about which he had thought and written for years. Yarbrough points to the influence of John Burgess on Roosevelt during his time at Columbia Law School, and to Professor Burgess’s antipathy to unalienable rights. “The doctrine of natural rights,” he declared, “was ‘unscientific’ and ‘erroneous’“; rights came to the individual through the historical development of society and its organ, government.
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Burgess, who had studied at the universities of Gottingen, Leipzig, and Berlin, leads Yarbrough to explore the broader influence of German political philosophy in the Progressive Era and on Roosevelt himself. Her account of G.W.F. Hegel and his influence on 19th-century American thought is one of the clearest I have read, and helps to explain one of modern liberalism’s main tenets: for Hegel, “rights did not naturally belong to the individual, but were the gift of the state.” Roosevelt’s adoption of the German approach was, as Yarbrough explains, a “contradiction” with respect to his professed admiration for The Federalist and for America’s founders–an admiration he maintained throughout his life, “even though the new ideas he would come to embrace posed a fundamental challenge to the principles for which his heroes stood.”
In the many historical essays he penned before becoming president of the United States, this contradiction became more evident. Yarbrough focuses on his peculiarly intense display of patriotism in these writings, in which he champions the great figures of the American political tradition, lauding their manliness, acumen, and nationalism at the expense of their ideas. “[T]he histories,” she writes, “lay bare the grounds of TR’s vigorous Americanism, making clear the sometimes subtle but always significant ways in which the young Roosevelt was at odds with the political principles of the men he claimed most to admire.”
One of the most obvious examples of Roosevelt’s departure from his heroes’ principles covered race. Although the American Founders understood human nature in a way that transcended racial differences, T.R. did not. His famous four-volume study, The Winning of the West, observes Yarbrough, abounds with invidious racial distinctions and racial judgments. The Indians were a “weaker and wholly alien race,” the Negro belonged to one of “the inferior races.” Even more important, one of the central themes of The Winning of the West was the necessity of race expansion and “race-supremacy” for national greatness.
She points to these views not for their shock value but to show how Roosevelt looked at politics “from a developmental and evolutionary perspective, distilled through racial categories inimical to the Declaration’s emphasis on individual rights.”
Hence his oft-asserted devotion to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln was highly flawed, to say the least. Jason Jividen’s Claiming Lincoln (2011) convincingly disproved T.R.’S alleged fidelity to Lincoln, and Yarbrough provides her own concise refutation of it:
[I]n contrast to Lincoln, Roosevelt never invoked the principles of the Declaration to condemn slavery. To be sure, Roosevelt denounced slavery as a “moral evil,” but he did so by calling it an offense against “the true standards of humanity and Christianity,” not a violation of natural right. This was because, unlike his heroes, Roosevelt did not see nature as a source of moral principle. His understanding of nature was derived from science, not philosophy.
Roosevelt’s un-Lincolnian principles helped to shape the reforms he pursued both in domestic and foreign policy. While his hostility to natural rights was present throughout his career, Yarbrough argues it became more pronounced in his second presidential term. His desire to reform commerce radicalized into a hostility to commerce itself and ultimately into a war against the wealthy.
And in his foreign policy, T.R. departed from the principles of the founding because he “saw greatness primarily in military terms,”–which ought to give pause to so-called “national greatness” conservatives. He believed that “the expansion of American power would aid the spread of civilization and demonstrate the country’s willingness to undertake great deeds.” Yarbrough shows the problem with such an approach from the founders’ perspective: “The United States, which had thrown off the British yoke, should be the last country to try to impose it on others by force. The ‘empire’ Hamilton envisioned in Federalist No. 1 was grounded on respect for natural rights and consent.”
Roosevelt’s innovations included his sweeping view of both national administrative and executive power. The latter was exemplified by T.R.’S “stewardship” theory, in which the president–and by extension, the government–is presumed to possess plenary power to do whatever he deems necessary, limited only by specific prohibitions in the Constitution–a view anticipated and denounced as unrepublican in The Federalist. (Publius goes on to explain that ours is a government of enumerated, not plenary, powers.)
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Yarbrough does a nice job throughout the book of dispelling the all-too-common association of Roosevelt with Alexander Hamilton. Although both undoubtedly embraced a vigorous executive, Hamilton insisted that “the executive was constrained by ‘the principles of free government.’“ These principles, Yarbrough explains, “were rooted in the protection of natural rights.” And despite his emphasis on administration, “nothing in Hamilton’s writings suggests that he would have backed the establishment of administrative agencies, staffed by bureaucrats largely insulated from the political process and equipped with broad discretionary powers over the economy.”
By highlighting Roosevelt’s clear break with the American Founders, Yarbrough also provides a long overdue correction to the otherwise sound analysis of executive speechmaking offered by Jeffrey Tulis in The Rhetorical Presidency (1987). Far from being a “middle way” between the founders and the Progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, as Tulis argued, T.R.’s words and deeds put him squarely in the latter camp. In fact, when Wilson penned his famous vision for the modern presidency in Constitutional Government in the United States (1908), he was clearly inspired by then President Roosevelt’s example.
While from beginning to end Jean Yarbrough’s book compellingly demonstrates the sharp contrasts between Roosevelt’s principles and the American Founders’, some will find the book’s conclusion unsatisfying, since it highlights these differences but stops short of choosing between them. Publishing the book with a traditional university press was undoubtedly a source of restraint in this respect. Any criticism on this count would be off the mark, however, because what Yarbrough wants to show is that we modern Americans, for better or worse, are as much heirs of Roosevelt and Progressivism as we are of the founders and the Constitution. By the contrasts she draws throughout the book between these two traditions, she makes abundantly clear both the nature of the choice we face and what we stand to lose.