T.R. and American Democracy

Ronald Pestritto offers well-deserved praise for Jean Yarbrough’s prize-winning book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition (“A Bully’s Pulpit,” Winter 2012/13), but on one important point, he badly distorts Yarbrough’s argument and in the process presents a flawed vision of Progressivism. He reads Yarbrough as claiming T.R.’s “deeply held principles” were shaped in large part by John Burgess of Columbia, who was in turn greatly influenced by German political philosophy, particularly that of Georg W.F. Hegel. According to Pestritto, T.R. adopted “the German approach,” which embraced the Hegelian notion that “rights did not naturally belong to the individual, but were the gift of the state.” From Hegel to Burgess to Roosevelt to the early 20th-century Progressives to Barack Obama—that is Pestritto’s tale of the triumph of pernicious foreign ideas imported into the United States.

That is not the story Yarbrough tells. Yes, T.R. studied with Burgess, but Burgess exaggerated the influence he wielded over his politically powerful student. Even more importantly, Yarbrough notes that Burgess adopted “the language of Hegel, though not his meaning.” Far from romanticizing the “ethical state,” Burgess “used German state theory…to defend the classic liberal order that Roosevelt and his Progressive allies would attack.” “Burgess’s influence,” she concludes, “would not be decisive as Roosevelt searched…for a theory to undergird his progressive politics.” Roosevelt obviously viewed himself as a “serious thinker,” but Yarbrough’s rich and detailed description of his writing and speeches casts doubt on both the consistency and the quality of his political thought. He tended to drift from one fashionable idea to another, embracing some (such as the “Teutonic germ theory” of the origins of liberal democracy) that can only be described as kooky. The one constant was his embrace of Social Darwinism—sometimes with a Lamarckian twist—combined with racial theories. Yes, he did admire the German welfare state, but this he attributed to Otto von Bismarck (a most appealing figure for this advocate of American military might and imperialism) rather than to Hegel.

Pestritto strains to find a foreign source for Progressivism’s wrong turn despite the fact than a more convincing cause is American democracy. Tocqueville argued that 1) democracy lacks respect for tradition and it scorns forms; 2) its love of equality inevitably leads to government centralization; 3) democrats believe in the perfectability of man, and thus in the inevitability of progress; and 4) democratic historians insist that history is governed by irrational social forces, not by men capable of reflection and choice. (And he came to these conclusions without reading Hegel.) If such ideas lie at the heart of Progressive thought, why should we attribute them to German philosophers barely read by Americans rather than to the features of democracy Tocqueville observed on this side of the Atlantic? Tocqueville also feared that American capitalism would produce a particularly harsh oligarchy—a not unreasonable concern shared by Progressives then and now.

Jean Yarbrough has done us a great service by providing a comprehensive, balanced, and unusually perceptive analysis of Theodore Roosevelt’s views on politics and history. We should not distort her book in order to blame the problems of American democracy on outside agitators.

R. Shep Melnick
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA


Ronald J. Pestritto replies:

In his complaint that I have twisted Jean Yarbrough’s account to suit my own view of the connection between German political thought and American Progressivism, R. Shep Melnick misstates what both Yarbrough and I have written, and he is simply wrong on the broader question of the Progressives and the Germans.

As to the particular charge that I mischaracterize Yarbrough’s argument, Melnick needs to check the accuracy of his words. He quotes me as writing of the Hegelian notion that “rights did not naturally belong to the individual, but were the gift of the state,” and uses these words he claims are mine to distinguish my view from Yarbrough’s. But the words he attributes to me are not mine—in fact, they come from Yarbrough. Melnick then uses these words, attributed to me but actually written by Yarbrough, to claim that “this is not the story Yarbrough tells.” That’s a pretty serious error for a man accusing others of distortion.

On the broader question of the German influence on the Progressives—and T.R. in particular—Melnick would have readers believe that Yarbrough downplays this connection, and that I “badly distort” her book in order to make it fit my own view. I think Melnick and I must have read different books, because the one that I read gives the German influence pride of place in tracing the origins of T.R.’s progressivism. An entire section of Yarbrough’s chapter on T.R.’s education is titled “The Hegelian Moment in American Politics.” And Yarbrough spends pages explicating Hegel’s Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right, which would strike me as a rather strange thing to do in a book on Theodore Roosevelt if the author didn’t think Hegel was pretty important to understanding him. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of Yarbrough’s case that T.R. sharply departs from the political principles of the American Founding hinges on her connection of T.R. to the Germans.

It is true that John Burgess’s influence was, as Yarbrough explains, a mixed bag. I certainly never said any differently. What I did say was that “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.” Both of these statements are simple statements of fact: Yarbrough does indeed point to Burgess’s influence at this time, and Burgess was indeed hostile to inalienable rights. The only other statement I make about Burgess is that her exploration of him leads Yarbrough to look into the broader connection of German thought to Progressivism; again, this is beyond dispute.

What Melnick seems to dislike is the use of Burgess to make the case about the influence of Hegelianism. This is, however, exactly what Yarbrough does. She says, for example, that T.R.’s “classes with John W. Burgess would introduce him to Hegelian state theory, important elements of which would find their way into Roosevelt’s later progressivism.” And she pays serious attention to Burgess’s Hegelianism and makes sure to connect it to T.R.’s rejection of the founders’ principles, citing at one point Burgess’s dream for the state (where Burgess explains that “this is what Hegel meant by his doctrine that morality—Sittlichkeit—is the end of the state”) and concluding that “it was surely no accident, that Roosevelt, in his speech at the University of Berlin in 1910, would hold out his ‘dream’ in almost identical language, though it was impossible to reconcile such a vision with the political thought of the Framers.” All of this, and much more, about Hegel and the Germans in a book about T.R.—again, awfully strange for an author whom Melnick would have you believe is victimized by my “strain[ing] to find a foreign source for Progressivism’s wrong turn.” In reality, Melnick’s beef seems to be with Yarbrough, not with me—or, I should say, with both Yarbrough and me.

Finally, Melnick employs Tocqueville to suggest that the wrong turn in American democracy was attributable to America itself as opposed to the importation of foreign ideas. This may or may not be true, and a good debate can be had about it. But in turning to Tocqueville, Melnick is the one who is straining to use Yarbrough’s book to suit his own view. Her references to Tocqueville are few and brief, while her treatment of the German influence on T.R.’s progressivism is frequent and sustained. And Tocqueville is only mentioned by Yarbrough to emphasize the problem of majority tyranny in democratic government. On this point, Tocqueville does not criticize the American idea of democracy, as Melnick suggests, but falls perfectly in line with The Federalist in his concern about the general tendency of democracy. As Yarbrough notes: “Roosevelt dismissed Tocqueville’s observation that the principal danger to republican government was majority tyranny. But the idea was not some exotic French import…. It was rather the animating argument of The Federalist.”

For more discussion of Jean M. Yarbrough’s Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition with Ronald J. Pestritto, Scott Yenor, Robert W. Patterson, and the author, visit our online feature, Upon Further Review, at www.claremont.org/ufr.

Taft and Natural Rights

Ryan Williams identifies William Taft as a conservative who rejected progressives’ “deference to legislative experimentation over the inflexible protection of the natural right to property” (“A Neglected Statesman,” Winter 2012/13). Chief Justice Taft and his Supreme Court colleagues, however, tacitly but firmly abandoned natural rights jurisprudence. In the decades before 1921, the Court frequently invoked natural law. But writing for a unanimous court in a 1923 patent case, Taft mentioned the “so-called natural right.” After 1923, no one on the Taft Court would ever again cite “nature” as source of law or right. In Buck v. Bell (1927), when Carrie Buck—forced to undergo sterilization as part of a state eugenics program—appealed to the Supreme Court to protect her “inherent right to go through life with full bodily integrity,” Taft assigned the writing of the opinion to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a prominent and acerbic critic of all such natural-rights claims. Holmes’s opinion simply ignored Buck’s natural rights argument. Taft, and all the justices save Pierce Butler, joined the opinion.

David Upham
University of Dallas
Irving, TX


Ryan P. Williams replies:

I defer to David Upham on when the Supreme Court abandoned the language of natural rights and natural law, and recommend to all CRB readers his article on Pierce v. Society of Sisters and the status of natural law in the Supreme Court in the early 20th century.

In the sentence that Upham quotes from my review, my goal was to draw the broad distinctions between Taft and some major—and consequential—tenets of political Progressivism. The fact remains that Taft parted ways with his judicial brethren during the ’20s about the malleability of the right to property in the hands of legislatures. On this question, Taft seemed very much alive to the concerns of the founders about the fundamental nature of property rights and their link to the individual person and his pursuit of happiness.

As for the 1923 patent case (Crown Die & Tool Co. v. Nye Tool & Machine Works), Taft is calling the property right in the artificial monopoly granted by U.S. patent law a “so-called natural right”—he is not referring to property as such. One would be hard-pressed to come up with even a Lockean argument for a monopoly on intellectual property as a natural right. If you steal all of the food I have labored to procure in the state of nature I can kill you for it, because you’re endangering my self-preservation. It seems a stretch to infer from that fact my right to kill you for mimicking my novel fishing net design.

The poor fate of Carrie Buck is another matter. I have searched in vain for even an explanation (let alone an excuse) for why Taft signed the majority opinion in the barbaric Buck v. Bell case. That he would assign the opinion to Holmes is even more disconcerting. Any accounting of Taft’s judicial career must reckon with these facts.

Understanding Gay Marriage

As I’ve argued in the American Conservative, gay marriage is driving some social conservatives crazy. By “crazy”, I don’t mean opposition to gay marriage as such. Rather, I mean stubborn, even willful refusal to understand why gay marriage has gained so much support, so quickly.

A majority of Americans now approve of gay marriage for two fairly simple reasons. First, most Americans understand marriage as symbolic affirmation of a dissolvable commitment between consenting adults for purposes of emotional gratification. Second, an increasing number of Americans have come to know gay people in their own lives as beloved relatives, trusted friends, respected colleagues, and honored authorities. If you understand marriage in the former sense, which has been socially dominant at least since the 1960s, there is no plausible argument for denying it to gay individuals one loves and respects. As Senator Rob Portman has discovered, the rest is reasoning from the particular to the general.

There’s little hope, though, of convincing a majority of Americans to give up easy divorce and technologies of reproductive control—practices, which were embraced by heterosexuals long before anyone had heard of Adam and Steve, and which are the real threats to “traditional marriage.” In his review of Michael Klarman’s From the Closet to the Altar for the Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell argues that the recent wave of support for gay marriage is the result of an unprecedented campaign of judicial usurpation and cultural intimidation (“Gay Rites,” Winter 2012/13). “Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies,” he writes. “Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.”

However, according to Gallup, approval for gay marriage rose 26% over the course of 15 years, while approval for interracial marriage—the most obvious, although in some ways superficial, parallel—rose 17% over 19 years. So, support for gay marriage has increased quickly, yet not so quickly that it requires a conspiratorial explanation.

Maybe interracial marriage is a bad comparison. In 1995, 28% of Americans believed marijuana should be legal—just 1% more than the number who supported gay marriage the following year. In 2011, however, 50% of Americans believed that marijuana should be legal, an increase of 22%. Over almost the same period, in other words, support for legal marijuana started and ended in about the same place as support for gay marriage. Yet no one seriously suggests that we’ve been conned by the pot lobby.

Although these observations are not a scientific analysis, they are suggestive of a few conclusions. First, the rise in support for gay marriage is a reasonably close fit with the historical pattern for change on controversial social issues. It has increased more quickly than support for interracial marriage or legal marijuana, but not so much that it raises suspicions of coercion. Second, it takes a long time for changes to traditional norms to achieve substantial support, but once support for such changes reaches a threshold of about 25%, it can increase very quickly.

Social conservatives don’t have to like these conclusions, but they make better sense of the wave of support for gay marriage than the suggestion that we are being marched in quick time along the road to serfdom. Although opponents of gay marriage have no choice but to obey their consciences, that does not require a flight from political and social reality.

Samuel Goldman
New York, NY

Modern Italy

It is disappointing when a scholar, one indeed who is so keen to emphasize his scholarly credentials, lets his political views get in the way of the facts. At least, that is the only way to explain some of the strange claims made in Michael Ledeen’s review of my book, Good Italy, Bad Italy (“Bribesville,” Winter 2012/13).

Ledeen claims that “much of” my book is a “frenzied hunt to slaughter former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi,” and that I blame Italy’s “current malaise almost entirely on Berlusconi.” This is bizarre both as a comment on the book and on Italy’s malaise. Of the book’s 299 pages, only about 30-40 are actually devoted to Berlusconi and his works. That is hardly disproportionate given that Berlusconi has been prime minister for 8 of the past 12 years and has deliberately chosen to hog the limelight as a campaigning technique. In any case, it is surely not unfair or “frenzied” to associate the governments of the day with the fact that during those 12 years Italy’s economic performance has been the worst of all 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and even one of the worst in the whole world.

He goes on to make a common but misleading claim when he writes that, at the time I wrote the book, “Berlusconi had never been convicted of any crime,” using this claim to argue that it is therefore wrong to treat “virtually all the charges against him with deadly earnestness.” The tax fraud charge for which Berlusconi was found guilty in the court of first instance in 2012 and the court of appeal in 2013 is in fact the fourth occasion on which he has received a jail sentence: on two of the three previous occasions he was saved not by actual acquittal but by the statute of limitations, as he may well be again now. Small wonder that once in government he set about shortening the statutory period for offences of which he was on trial as well as decriminalizing others—including, amazingly, false accounting.

So why does Ledeen wish to defend Berlusconi and paint my book as a witch hunt? A clue appears when he writes that I do not know “the first thing about modern Italian history,” and that “you would never know [from the book] that postwar Italy had a blocked political system, due to the presence of the Communist Party.” Well, you would actually, since this appears on page 37, albeit briefly since this is not a history book. But the real point is that my view of postwar political history is that the system was designed to block the Communist Party, not that the party blocked the system.

The Communist Party did get one third of the votes at its peak in 1976, but a historian should surely not find this particularly surprising after three decades of exclusion from mainstream politics and of being used as a pretext by the state and by the party that did block the system (the Christian Democrats) for collusion with the mafia and political funding by the CIA. Nor was it alone in Europe: the more Stalinist French Communist Party regularly also won more than 20% of the vote throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Ledeen claims the Italian Communist Party “seemed poised to take control of the government in the early 1990s,” which would, shall we say, surprise most modern historians given that the party split in 1991.

But then comes another clue. Ledeen says that “when Berlusconi entered politics [in 1994] he “successfully mobilized the electorate, warning [my emphasis] that the left was still in the hands of the old Communists.” Actually, he claimed that this was the case, and still does. It has been a successful reds-under-the-bed strategy, but it was self-serving nonsense in 1994 and it is nonsense now. The left-wing-led governments of the 1990s that succeeded Berlusconi’s brief first administration in 1994 were responsible for most of the privatization and market-based liberalization that Italy has seen in modern times. Uncle Joe Stalin wouldn’t have been pleased.

Still, anyone who can write, with a straight face, that Berlusconi made “a historic contribution to the freedom of the press in Italy” by inserting his commercial TV oligopoly alongside the public broadcasting system that had been divided between the main political parties cannot have much interest in examining facts. That historic contribution is doubtless why Freedom House, the Washington D.C.-based research group, defines Italy as only “partly free” and ranked it at number 68 in its 2013 rankings, between Guyana and Benin.

Oh well. It is, as Ledeen says, “not easy to see Italy plain.”

Bill Emmott
Dulverton, Somerset


Michael Ledeen replies:

Many thanks to Mr. Emmott for his forceful restatement of his frenzied hunt on Silvio Berlusconi, who now faces prosecution for alleged sexual misconduct. Contrary to Emmott’s misguided assumption, I am no fan of Berlusconi, indeed I wrote him off as a failed leader in my book Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, and he has done nothing to change my mind. No doubt he will eventually be convicted for something of which he is actually guilty, within the required time limits. Mr. Emmott is not alone; the hunting pack is very large and in passionate pursuit. But they’d better hurry if they want to see their intended victim behind bars, since Italian courts are reluctant to send senior citizens to prison.

My basic unhappiness with Good Italy, Bad Italy is Mr. Emmott’s failure to deal with the country’s blocked political system. Yes, he acknowledged it in passing, but it is not at all central to his analysis, and his lament here shows that I was right to call him out on it. He thinks that the Christian Democrats (DC) effectively monopolized the political system by colluding with the mafia and getting funding from the CIA. No mention that the Communists, as most everyone in Sicily (and all over the country), also colluded with the mafia, nor that the Communist Party (PCI) was funded and effectively controlled by the Soviet Union, as recent scholars like Victor Zaslavsky have documented. Soviet funding of the PCI lasted at least a decade longer than American funding of the DC and other parties, and Soviet control over the PCI was far more efficient than our influence over the Christian Democrats.

In any event, it was not the United States that kept the Communists out of national power. Credit or blame for that state of affairs must be given to the Italian voters, who often held their noses and voted for the Christian Democrats, or against the Communists. The distinguished Italian intellectual Alberto Ronchey used to call this situation “the K factor,” and there is a substantial literature about it.

Emmott’s is not a “history book,” to be sure, but the problems he discusses are largely the result of history. He angrily quotes me when I say that Berlusconi ran against the threat of a Communist takeover in the early 1990s. Then he complains that Berlusconi surprisingly won on an anti-Communist platform. He thinks it would have been fine if the Left had taken over. He may be right (subsequent leftist governments came and went without the ruin of the country), but the Italian voters didn’t think so, which, after all, is the point. He can go argue with them; I don’t vote in Italian elections.

Lastly, I don’t understand why Mr. Emmott disagrees that the end of the state monopoly on television broadcasting was a good thing. I suppose he prefers to have it all in the hands of the political parties. I certainly prefer the current wide-open setup.