Term in Office: 26th president, 1901-1909
Political Party: Republican
Home State: New York
-Warning: Alex Voltaire is writing through severe jetlag.-
Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps our most quintessentially American president. He is both idealistically progressive and unabashedly conservative, imperialist yet a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a conservationist who nevertheless killed over 300 exotic animals on safari. All of these paradoxes were brought together by an enthusiastic, almost boyish personality, and a fierce, belligerent, but also highly intelligent ethos that belied a willingness to play the game by the rules and find compromise and mutual agreement. When someone from outside the U.S. scratches their heads trying to understand the American character, someone like Theodore Roosevelt personifies the difficulty and complexity in comprehending us.
At this point in the rankings game, every spot matters. The difference between #15 and #16 on this list doesn’t quite matter; I had to strain at gnats to pick between Hayes and Taft. But now, in the top seven and the bottom six, each spot is weighted with meaning and significance. Roosevelt was a substantively successful president, a man who changed the institution of the presidency very much for the better, whose triumphs are limited by their mildness in domestic affairs, and a misguided track in foreign affairs. He defeats Jefferson by a considerable margin, by virtue of the greater initiative he showed in legislation that improved the quality of American life, from the natural parks we enjoy to the quality of the food we eat.
What I love about Roosevelt’s term is how it breaks the pattern of dull, obscure, bearded, Methodist timeserver presidents that follow Lincoln in the pantheon. TR brims with personality, energy, and willpower, and used these qualities to reinvigorate the staid institution of the presidency. In my last post, I discussed how Coolidge’s lethargy harmed both the country and the presidency, and Theodore Roosevelt could not stand in greater contrast. He blissfully put a stop to the 19th century frittering about whether building a canal in Indiana was constitutional or not, and moved the presidency toward a role in solving outstanding problems in American society. As TR himself put it, “aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.” In short, Roosevelt is the first president who acts in a way similar to how we expect a president to act today— not a constitutional. functionary, but an active leader and first citizen. He acts as a party leader, and tries to lobby Congress. She will endorse specific courses of action, raise awareness of a key issue, and try to persuade the public— the so-called bully pulpit, a term Roosevelt himself gave to us. If there is an outstanding matter of economic or social stress, he will attempt to weigh in on it. Other presidents merely kept the wheels of government in motion; Roosevelt joyfully and conscientiously tinkered and experimented with the machinery.
We consider Roosevelt the first in a triumvirate of progressive presidents, with Taft and Wilson following him. But what is meant by this descriptor, “progressive”? As I see it, progressivism is the impulse to organize the economy, the political realm and society itself into something more smart rational, less monopolistic, and fully humane. You can see it in the establishment of Hull Houses, in the rise of professional organizations (membership in the AMA, for example, quadrupled in the first ten years of the 20th century), and the experiments in direct democracy in LaFollette’s Wisconsin. It is equally important to emphasize what progressivism is ~not~. It is not a reworking of the tax code (indeed, income taxes were considered unconstitutional in Roosevelt’s day) or establishing entitlements for the poor, the disabled, or the elderly. It was regulatory and not, in any respect, redistributive. This definition of progressivism, then, is focused on making competition more fair and more honest, allowing the best man to win. Much of the signature Roosevelt-era legislation bears this mark (and it is important to remember the very fact that Roosevelt took the initiative to argue for specific programs from congress shows a much more proactive approach to the presidency than his immediate forebears.) Consider the Meat Inspection Act, and the Pure Food and Drug Acts, the unwitting product of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, widely considered to be the first consumer protection laws.
But it was the most conservative of regulations. Gabriel Kolko, in his work on the progressive era, tellingly called The Triumph of Conservatism, argues that the progressive movement did more to preserve, rather than challenge, existing power relationships and ways of doing business. Roosevelt, and most public actors at the time, saw monopoly as a natural tendency in the business world, a state of nature. In the years immediately before TR took office, monopolies grew at an alarming rate, usually through mergers— to the point where the number of overall firms actually dropped in each of the final years of the 19th century as onetime rivals engulfed one another. U.S. Steel, the conglomeration of what had once been 138 different companies, is the starkest example. In a way, Roosevelt accepted this logic, and often cast himself as saving capitalism from itself, insulating it from the charges radical leftists would bring against it. (To put this in perspective, the Socialist Party was drawing nearly a million votes in presidential elections and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor.) To Kolko, progressivism was a ruse; it was not the triumph of high-minded middle-class reformers over trusts, but the victory of big business to get the stability and protection that only the federal government could provide.
One might note that Roosevelt was very selective in which trusts he chose to prosecute, and it often boiled down to his own instincts, almost like Captain Kirk choosing how to engage with an enemy. He took down the Northern Securities Company, he broke up Rockefeller’s oil monopoly. Roosevelt also established, through the Hepburn Act, the right of Congress to set interstate railroad rates, saving farmers from the maddeningly arbitrary and exacting prices set by the railroad companies. Yet trusts that dominated an industry, but in TR’s view charged fair prices and adhered to fair practices were left alone. Roosevelt took key industrialists at their word when they promised to curb monopolistic practices, a “gentlemen’s agreement between reasonable [and often likeminded] people,” as another historian from the 60s, Robert Wiebe, put it. In a 1905 speech, he expounded a view that businesses, if their trustworthiness was proven, ought to regulate themselves without any interference from government. Another case where TR allowed his own instincts to govern his choice was in the Brownsville, Texas shooting. Residents of the town maintained that it was a cadre of black soldiers who had done the deed, and Roosevelt, eschewing any investigation or allowing the soldiers their day in court, dishonorably discharged all 170 of them in the units rumored to have been involved. To insulate them from radicalism. It was almost as if he believed that through a conscientious aristocracy, rather than more direct participation in governmental affairs.
And yet, perhaps Kolko was too pessimistic. Instead, I am more inclined to cast TR-era progressivism by my definition of the movement as organizational, rational, moralist, expert-driven, and bureaucratic. In this case, it makes more sense to view Roosevelt as a frantic organizer-in-chief. His role sometimes amounted to an organization-man, a mediator, or as historian Alvin Felzenberg perceptively characterizes him, “an umpire.” Roosevelt casts himself as a mediator in a 1902 coal strike. As opposed to Hayes and Cleveland, who both used the power of the federal government to break the strike, Roosevelt was able to recognize the miners’ legitimate grievances. He positioned himself as a fair, neutral third party, and arrived at a solution where miners got more pay and fewer hours, and the owners agreed to a higher price of goal and the miners’ union would not be recognized. The miners deserved what he called a Square Deal and the chance to improve their condition through bargaining. It was vintage Roosevelt- trying to find the line between malefactors of wealth and a growing line of working-class radicalism.
Roosevelt’s domestic progressivism and his imperialism in foreign affairs was not a paradox, but part and parcel of the same worldview. In the same way Roosevelt deigned to more sensibly and safely organize the nation’s great trusts, he sought to organize international affairs. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was the malodorous and paternalist justification of this approach, which all but declared that the U.S. could intervene in any Latin American country deemed in need of intervention. Now, Latin America had more reason than ever to be aggrieved at their superpower neighbor to the north. The most famous example of this is, of course, his handling of Panama. Congress offered Colombia, which owned the site of the possible canal route, an insultingly low $7 million for the rights to build the canal. When they refused, TR pulled an Eisenhower, and began funneling support to Panamanian rebels, succeeding and creating an ugly sense of American entitlement to this piece of Latin American territory. It was still causing problems in the late 1970s, with Reagan’s ugly language about how “we built the canal; its ours” to oppose the treaty to return it to Panamanian control. (And the degree to which the American public agreed with him was just as horrifying.) In Santo Domingo, Roosevelt assumed the power to supervise the collection of taxes and payment of debts when the country became insolvent and could not pay its European creditors, who threatened invasion.
In Nicaragua, the Roosevelt administration turned against Jose Zelaya, a progressive-minded reformer who angered the U.S. by seeking German help in building a canal through the longer, but less mountainous, Nicaraguan route. John Ellis Findling wrote that after the incident, “Nicaragua was no longer a country that needed to be coddled or cared for in preparation for future usefulness. Rather, now it was a country that needed to be watched and carefully kept in line.” Very quickly, “protecting” Nicaragua from Europe became interfering in its domestic politics. Philander Knox, TR’s Attorney General, poisoned the relationship between U.S. companies in Nicaragua and the Zelaya regime, turning the American press against Zelaya, calling for his ouster, and ultimately giving money to the conservative and (classical) liberal groups that removed him from power.
One of the more interesting subtexts to these wars and interventions is how TR tried to masculinize a robust, big-stick brandishing foreign policy (and the term “big-stick” is already saturated in phallic imagery). Arbitration, the strategy used by Grover Cleveland, became associated with womanliness; it represented, as Kristin Hoganson suggests,“unmanly submissiveness”. TR thought an active role for the US in the world would not only enhance its international standing, but would serve as a tonic for a timid national character. Thus, war and intervention, always interceding in Latin America “for its own good”, was framed in a masculine, and ultimately fatherly, way, as moral and physical courage were confused and conflated. Some have argued that TR spent his adult life demonstrating his masculinity after a sickly childhood, and a young adulthood in which he, with his fancy dress, high-pitched voice and effete mannerisms, was accused of being a “dude” and a “dandy.” In a way, this is a foreign policy branch of Roosevelt’s vaunted endorsement of “the strenuous life,” with serious, and often cruel, international implications.
For all of TR’s impulsive tics of character, though, he was also one of our most visionary presidents. He inaugurated a number of new reforms that updated the staid institution of the presidency, building upon many of William McKinley’s reforms. He was the first president to leave the country while in office, crossing a bridge into Canada, and more significantly, supervising the construction of the Panama Canal. He engaged with the press, and often used them to circumvent congress, offering favored journalists tantalizing tidbits and access to power in exchange for not publishing what the president felt ought not to be published. But Roosevelt’s sense of vision was most clear in his conservation efforts. Under his watch and his advocacy, he used the progressive ideals of organization and trusting exports to set aside 125 million acres of national forests, and created at Pelican Island the nation’s first wildlife refuge. If TR had not acted as early as he did, a good part of these lands could have been lost to short-sighted development.
Roosevelt also innovated the presidency by establishing a strong, robust approach to the office, which had not yet happened when a vice-president took the office upon his predecessor’s death. In each previous case, their party “waited out the clock” and did not invest much faith or confidence in the new president. Some, like John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, were at loggerheads with the party that nominated them. Others, like Fillmore and Arthur, were viewed by nearly everyone as a timeserver, unable to win nomination in his own right. Roosevelt approached the presidency from a position of strength, and In every subsequent case, a vice-president who inherited the presidency on his predecessor’s death succeeded to win a term in their own right: Coolidge, Truman, and LBJ all followed this pattern. (Ford, who inherited the office through Nixon’s resignation, is an almost self-explanatory exception.)
John Milton Cooper’s dual biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson casts them as, respectively, the warrior and the priest. This is a fitting designation; Wilson interpreted the world around him through a pietistic prism, while Roosevelt picked fights and battles, and rarely relented. While Wilson scolded and schemed, Roosevelt went into battle. He was undoubtedly a warrior, but at times, one has to question just who he was fighting for; as we have seen, many of his reforms protected existing power every bit as much as they curtailed it.
Two great “what ifs” worth considering: The election geek in me rues the lost opportunity of the 1904 election: it was the only one in a half-generation where the Democrats did not choose William Jennings Bryan, instead opting for a bland but competent New York circuit judge named Alton Parker. This was a great shame: seeing the quintessential populist and the quintessential progressive battle one another would have been magnificent,– Roosevelt the urban reformer vs. Bryan the agrarian radical. Each was among the most rousing orators of the day and eager to engage with the public. It could have been a fantastic opportunity for public debate about America’s direction.
What-If #2: As significant a president as Roosevelt was, I cannot help but wish that we had gotten to see Theodore Roosevelt win as a Progressive candidate in 1912. Imagine a man of Roosevelt’s charisma and energies working toward a national health service, women’s suffrage, the 8-hour workday, or judicial recall (when the court rules a piece of law unconstitutional, the people could repeal the decision by popular vote. It’s fascinating to think of how the course of U.S. history could change if there was a popular check on the court.)