A review of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, by Joshua David Hawley

For too long, notes Stanford historian David M. Kennedy in his Foreword to Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, biographers have played up the antics and colorful personality of our 26th president, while giving short shrift to his thought. T.R.'s best known biographer, Edmund Morris, seemed positively allergic to ideas and, on the few occasions in Theodore Rex when he ventured to explain them, got them hopelessly muddled (see my "Bully!" CRB, Winter 2002). Yet pundits and politicians continue to find in Roosevelt's ideas a source of political inspiration. New York Timescolumnist David Brooks has long championed Roosevelt as a model for Republicans, advising candidates to ask themselves if what they stand for would make Teddy proud. And in this electoral season, John McCain has once again cast himself as a "conservative" in the Theodore Roosevelt mold. Thus the publication of Joshua David Hawley's new biography, the first to focus primarily on Roosevelt's ideas, is both welcome and timely. 

Like T.R., Hawley is a young man with large and laudable ambitions. Indeed, the parallels between the two are striking. Roosevelt began his first book, The Naval War of 1812, while a senior at Harvard, and continued working on it during his stint at the Columbia Law School. It was published to great critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic when he was 23. Hawley's study grew out of an undergraduate honors thesis at Stanford, which he completed in book form five years later while a student at the Yale Law School, and on the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal to boot! The dust jacket informs us that he has just finished a clerkship with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. It would seem that T.R. has found a worthy biographer. 

In many respects, he has. The great virtue of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness is how seriously it takes Roosevelt as a political thinker. "Roosevelt," Hawley writes, "thought more deeply…than most any of his contemporaries, including Woodrow Wilson" about "the fundamental questions of freedom," such as "the moral and intellectual requirements of democratic citizenship," how "the new industrial economy" could be reconciled with "republican equality and independence," and what was the proper role of a "free republic in the world." On all these issues, Roosevelt "saw farther than most any of his contemporaries, including Woodrow Wilson." Yet Hawley is not without his reservations. Though he admires Roosevelt for having had "the courage and the character to ask the questions," he grants that the answers Roosevelt offered "may not always have been wise or consistent." 

Without ever saying so, Hawley demonstrates that Roosevelt's thought was very much a product of his times. At the age of 14, he had read Darwin's Origin of Species and absorbed its central teaching that species evolved through natural selection, or survival of the fittest. Later, at Harvard, Roosevelt studied geology with Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who introduced him to Lamarckianism, a competing theory that explained evolution by arguing that species adapt to their surroundings and pass these acquired characteristics along to their progeny. In his politics, Roosevelt straddled these two theories uneasily, using Darwin's survival of the fittest to explain and justify "Manifest Destiny" in his histories, but couching his policy prescriptions, most notably on immigration, in Lamarckian language. More than many in his social class, Roosevelt believed that the newly arrived could advance if they would assimilate to American ways and teach these to their children. At the same time, there was more than a trace of Darwinism when Roosevelt the aspiring reformer observed that, in the struggle of life, a great many were bound to fail, and there was nothing the state should do about it.

Theories about the political superiority of the Aryan or Teutonic "race" were also very much in vogue, and Roosevelt absorbed these as well. Hawley identifies Edward Augustus Freeman as one of the principal proponents of these views. Indeed, the Harvard catalogue for 1877 reveals that Freeman's was the assigned text for the sophomore year's required history course. No wonder then that Roosevelt's own histories, trenchantly discussed by Hawley, hewed to the "germ theory" of liberty, according to which the capacity for liberty was nurtured in the German forests (and carried by the Anglo-Saxons to England), whence it was brought to America. While Roosevelt did not go so far as to argue that the Teutonic race possessed a unique capacity for self-government, he was convinced that the English-speaking race stood far in advance of the rest of the world. In fact, he used this argument (among others) to justify American expansionism, which was really imperialism by another name. Yet unlike his arguments in defense of Manifest Destiny, which were cast in harsh Darwinian tones, Roosevelt defended expansion in the Philippines as a benefit to the ruled.

As Hawley demonstrates, Roosevelt's devotion to the social gospel tempered the harsher implications of his social Darwinism and racial views, though it did nothing to moderate his conviction of his own rightness. If anything, transferring salvation to the here and now (as the social gospel did, effectively) only intensified his righteous fervor. As his title suggests, righteousness is the theme that ties together the diverse strands of Roosevelt's politics, culminating in the Progressive Convention in 1912, where the faithful, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," heard Roosevelt conclude his acceptance speech: "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."

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Yet for a biography that focuses on ideas, Hawley's is strangely silent about the influence of German State theory on Roosevelt's turn to Progressivism. To be sure, he asserts that Roosevelt tended to conflate the people and the State in a way that was quite outside the American political tradition, but he does not investigate the origin of these foreign notions. At one point, discussing the thought of Herbert Croly, he notes similarities to Rousseau's general will; but he never mentions the more likely influence of German ideas on Roosevelt. As Eldon Eisenach has persuasively demonstrated in The Lost Promise of Progressivism (1994), many of the early Progressive reformers, including two whom Hawley singles out for discussion, Henry Carter Adams and Richard T. Ely, had studied in Germany. Adams spent two years at Heidelberg and Berlin, and later received the first Ph.D. awarded by Johns Hopkins, itself an outpost of German thought. Ely received his Ph.D. from Heidelberg. 

Instead of discussing Progressivism's German accents, Hawley takes refuge in Adams's description of himself as an "economic mugwump," a term he sprinkles liberally throughout the book to explain Roosevelt's positions as well. But "mugwumpery" as a description of Roosevelt's thought is particularly unsatisfying. Not only did Roosevelt disdain the mugwumps (who, in 1884, bolted from the Republican Party, refusing to support candidate James G. Blaine), but more important, his belief that the state should rise above crude material interests had deeper roots. Roosevelt, after all, had taken several courses in German at Harvard, and had been exposed to at least one form of German State theory when he studied with John Burgess at the Columbia Law School. Ultimately, T.R. would reject Burgess's laissez-faire politics, but there are surprising parallels in their conceptions of the state.

Although Hawley fails to capture fully the complex sources of Roosevelt's thinking, he is very good at pointing out that Roosevelt's ideas cannot be reconciled with those of the American Founders. Whereas the founders believed that legitimate government rested on a social compact, Roosevelt saw government arising not as a result of deliberation and choice, but as part of a long evolutionary process, characterized by struggle and violence. And though both believed that republican government required a virtuous citizenry, Roosevelt tended to elevate the virile or manly virtues above everything else. Most important, the founders believed that government was established to protect individual natural rights; Roosevelt, as he became more progressive, tended to be suspicious of individualism and thought more in terms of duties than of rights. When on occasion he did mention rights, he tended to view them as historically contingent and capable of being adjusted to meet the demands of the moment. In place of natural rights, Roosevelt championed national greatness. So although T.R. frequently invoked the founders, his political principles were in important ways at odds with theirs.

It is on the question of what to make of these differences that Hawley most disappoints, first, because he insists on calling T.R. a conservative, and second, because he can't quite figure out what he himself thinks about Progressivism. Of course, the description of Roosevelt as conservative is hardly new. T.R. frequently spoke of himself that way, but he did so to try to appeal to those on his right. His enemies on the left, Robert LaFollette and the radical insurgents, picked up on this and ran with it because they considered his regulatory program too friendly to business interests. But why should they get to define the terms?

It is true, as Hawley points out, that Roosevelt sought to avoid class warfare and social disruption, and that he tried to bring his party around to accepting what he thought were inevitable changes. But, as the author recognizes, these were not changes designed to shore up the principles of the American Founders or to adapt them to new circumstances. As president, T.R. was convinced that the times required new principles, and that the only real choice was between his "conservative radicalism" and a more violent, disruptive form. But no matter how many times he mentioned Edmund Burke, there was nothing even remotely "conservative" about the reconstruction of political life Roosevelt increasingly sought. By the end of his presidency, he was at war with his own party over his proposals to extend government regulation to the economy as a whole and to introduce a social welfare state. And in his effort to unseat Taft, Roosevelt went even further, championing a plebiscitary democracy with fewer constitutional checks.

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Why Hawley seems so confused about what to make of T.R. and Progressivism is an interesting question, the answer to which is suggested in a comment by Hawley's mentor, David M. Kennedy, in one of the endnotes: "most American academic historians," Kennedy observes, "have thought of themselves as the political heirs of the Progressive tradition." Imagine how difficult it must be for a young history major (or, for that matter, law student) to raise doubts about the Progressive vision. Hawley confesses that there is much in Roosevelt's thought that is unsavory, in one place describing Roosevelt's vision as "statist and coercive, perhaps even socialistic." The book's frequent contrasts of Roosevelt with the founders suggest that Hawley is torn, but he cannot bring himself to retract his suggestion that there is something "conservative" about T.R. Still less can he affirm the wisdom of the founders. To do so would require him to argue that there are some truths that transcend their time. And this is precisely what historians, especially those who are heirs of the Progressive tradition, deny.

Hawley might have sorted out these intellectual muddles better if he had made a serious study of the founders and Lincoln for himself and expanded his reading to include political theorists who have written about America. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the "republican" paradigm he discusses (of virtue, equality, and disinterested devotion to the common good) is largely an academic confection, a way to discredit the founders' liberal republicanism. In a similar fashion, reading Washington, Hamilton, and The Federalist along with Lincoln, whose mantle T.R. claimed, might have provided a sturdier foundation for judging Roosevelt's politics. But this would have taken time. Lacking a coherent perspective, alas, this remarkable first book remains, as Hawley says of Theodore Roosevelt's early views, "genuine," but "undigested."