Bearish on Teddy

June 1, 1998 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: AcademiaBusinessCold WarEconomic Liberalism

Bearish on Teddy

Mini Teaser: Brands deserves congratulation on his new biography, an honest, enjoyable, sympathetic portrait of our twenty-sixth president, aside from a melodramatic prologue and some unfortunate bows to modern psychology.

by Author(s): Charles R. Kesler

H.W. Brands, T.R.: The Last Romantic (New York: Basic Books, 1997)

It is difficult to write a bad book about Theodore Roosevelt, but even more difficult to write a really good one. H.W. Brands, a professor of history at Texas A&M, deserves congratulation on his new one-volume biography, an honest, enjoyable, sympathetic portrait of our twenty-sixth president. Aside from a melodramatic prologue and some unfortunate bows to modern psychology, Brands provides a straightforward narrative of Roosevelt's life, letting T.R. speak for himself and allowing his contemporaries to provide commentary. The result is a vivid character study, stronger on his life than on his times, but engrossing throughout. The book appears in a season of renewed interest in the Republican Roosevelt, not least because of the conservative debate over "national greatness" sparked by David Brooks and William Kristol, in which Roosevelt figures prominently as a patron saint of American nationalism and energetic government.

T.R. was a phenomenon, "a force of nature", as countless friends as well as enemies called him. His character, at once exasperating and endearing, helped to make politics interesting again for Americans who still lived in the shadow of the Civil War, sheltered but dominated by the great men and achievements of the mid-nineteenth century. William Jennings Bryan, the other galvanizing politician of Roosevelt's era, was a much less interesting figure in his own right, and his platform of debt relief through rampant monetary inflation could hardly be called high-minded. So in an age when public attention focused more on industrialists and financiers like Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan than on politicians, and when politicians themselves were often cogs in political machines run by better known or more notorious bosses, Roosevelt stood out. His ranching, hunting, birdwatching, book writing, politicking, bullying, flag waving, soldiering, and canal-building reminded Americans that life was about more than getting and spending, and that happiness and duty were not mutually exclusive. T.R. was living proof that politics at its best was something higher--both more fun and more serious--than economics.

Part of the fun (and the seriousness) was Roosevelt's talent for invective. He was not a great writer, but he could turn a phrase, particularly if it were acerbic: he was a virtuoso of vituperation. Brands provides many examples: the opponents of the Panama Canal treaty were "a small body of shrill eunuchs"; the British ambassador, Roosevelt confided, "seems to have a brain of about eight guinea-pig power"; Bryan was "the cheapest faker we have ever had proposed for President"; journalist Joseph Pulitzer was "one of those creatures of the gutter of such unspeakable degradation that to him even eminence on a dunghill seems enviable." And surveying Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policy, T.R. commented, "We are passing through a thick streak of yellow in our national life."

Roosevelt was certainly "judgmental", as we would say today, which is one reason why reading him (and about him) is such a tonic. But the principles behind his judgments were not always reliable. Of these underlying moral and intellectual doctrines, Brands says very little--characteristically, he provides us with T.R.'s grades at Harvard, but not the contents of his courses. What Brands does vouchsafe about Roosevelt's principles is entirely conventional, bound up as it is in the tired account of Progressivism as a more or less natural outgrowth of American social and economic conditions. For decades, this lazy man's Marxism (there are several varieties of it, depending on whether the Progressives were reforming democratic capitalism in order to preserve it or transcend it) has commanded the mainstream of American historiography. Yet T.R.'s principles are at issue again in the current debate over "national greatness" conservatism, when, to say the least, socio-economic conditions are vastly different from those of the 1890s. So the principles themselves need to be revisited: Do today's conservatives have anything to learn from T.R.?

Like many of those who lived through the Civil War, Roosevelt (born 1858) was impressed by how much of peaceful political life depended on victory in war, and thus on the readiness of citizens to fight and die for their country or, as he put it, their "race." Addressing the Naval War College in 1897, he emphasized that "no national life is worth having if the nation is not willing, when the need shall arise, to stake everything on the supreme arbitrament of war, and to pour out its blood, its treasure, and tears like water rather than submit to the loss of honor and renown." Indeed, he declared, "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war." This statement would seem to contradict the traditional, and reasonable, view that the purpose of war is to secure a just peace; that the triumphs of war exist for the sake of the triumph of peace. Roosevelt's words implied either that peace was for the sake of war, or that peace and war were more continuous than they might seem. Peace would then be only an interruption of war, and war would be the fundamental phenomenon. "Cowardice in a race, as in an individual, is the unpardonable sin", T.R. told the assembled officers. Cowardice--not injustice--is the capital vice of society.

Roosevelt was a fervent believer in justice, of course, but he saw justice in the context of comprehensive struggle. To be specific, he was a kind of Social Darwinist who saw the world divided into competing racial and national groups, some more advanced or civilized than others. This did not mark him as odd or atavistic--far from it, for this was the latest thing in social science, and he had studied it on his own and at Harvard University and Columbia Law School. He preferred the white race because it was his own and because it was the most civilized in the world, and among the whites he preferred the English-speaking peoples (descended from Teutonic stock, to be sure) for the same reasons. "Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence", he once wrote, "than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the New Worlds' surface, temperate America and Australia." Democracy had earned this honor because aristocratic governments, by their nature, would have wanted to import slaves or manual workers (blacks or Chinese, in the instant cases) into these vast countries; but "democracy, with the clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept out the dangerous alien." At least the democrats tried to.

Progress was not necessarily permanent, however, and despite his belief that acquired characteristics could be inherited, Roosevelt worried that the American race and other advanced races might backslide. For "a rich nation which is slothful, timid, or unwieldy is an easy prey for any people which still retains those most valuable of all qualities, the soldierly virtues." And he worried also that the civilized races would not reproduce themselves ("No race has any chance to win a great place unless it consists of good breeders as well as of good fighters").

Still, once blacks, Chinese, Slavs, and members of other races had become incorporated into American life, they could and should become members of the American race, and Roosevelt was a vigorous proponent of Americanization as the means to this end. The rule among democratic citizens was equality before the law, and he believed firmly in that, too. Actually, it was not unusual for Social Darwinism in America to bend in this liberal or humane direction, though it did so for diverse reasons. In Roosevelt's case the explanation was clear: On the basis of the sentiments of his political heroes--George Washington and Abraham Lincoln--he insisted that in American democracy rights attached to individual human beings, not to classes or racial groups; that the principles of right and wrong ran "at right angles" to such social groups; and consequently that Americans were bound together as a single people or race, united by and in a common good.

His Americanism did not entirely redeem his Social Darwinism, but his esteem for the nation's heroes saved Roosevelt from the worst consequences of the dogma of social evolution. His admiration for Washington and Lincoln was so genuine and deep that T.R. thought the purpose of his political career was to restore the spirit of Lincoln to the party of Lincoln. There was nothing like this love in Woodrow Wilson's thought, in which the new historical-comparative political science rendered obsolete all such appeals to the past. (Although Wilson did admire the classic parliamentary debates of British history, he realized soon enough that these could not be reproduced in modern America.) Roosevelt's love of moral and civic virtue was genuine, too. He preached "the strenuous life", partly because in the struggle for existence among peoples and races Americans needed a substitute for the frontier life that used to keep them physically and emotionally fit; but he also promoted it because courage was healthy and noble, in and of itself.

Inevitably, however, T.R.'s attempt to combine Washington and Lincoln with John Burgess and other Darwinian and quasi-Darwinian theorists came a cropper. Try as he might to harmonize them, the result was intellectual confusion, no matter how many discrete moral points they happened to agree on. Roosevelt admitted as much: "My code is that duty must be done and that the doing of it must be the chief reward and often the only reward, and though I could not very clearly give my reasons why I do hold this code, yet I am perfectly sure it is the right code to hold."

There was a cost, in other words, to the gentleman's disagreement in his head. The cost was, in the first place, intellectual. Despite his emphatic respect for Washington and Lincoln, he almost never used their language of natural rights and the social contract to describe America, because this language and its political theory had been discredited by his other authorities--the theorists of Social Darwinism and of the English and German historical school. So he was reduced to admiring his heroes for their greatness of soul, wholly apart from the ends or the understanding of justice to which they devoted that greatness. Brands regards T.R. as "the last Romantic" because he saw the world as clearly divided between good and evil, which though true is hardly a definition of Romanticism. The true Romanticism in Roosevelt's soul was his exaltation of great passions and great struggles at the expense of reason and the rational harmony of good character.

But the cost he paid was also moral and political. His larger political doctrines were always blurry, as Brands admits. T.R. claimed to be "a Jeffersonian in my genuine faith in democracy and popular government", but "a Hamiltonian in my governmental views, especially with reference to the need of the exercise of broad powers by the National Government." Though he shared Jefferson's "faith" in democracy, he did not share Jefferson's reasons for that faith. Though he embraced Hamilton's view of the "need" to exercise national powers, he rejected Hamilton's explanation of the grounds and limits of those powers. In a fine study of this question (one awaiting publication in a forthcoming book), political scientist Randall (Lance) Robinson has shown how different are Hamilton's and Roosevelt's views of executive power under the Constitution. Hamilton insisted that the president's broad powers were grounded in his constitutional authority and duty, were subject to the exceptions and qualifications spelled out in the Constitution, were limited to objects that clearly were the responsibility of the national government, and had to be interpreted in conformity with the rest of the Constitution and the general principles of free government.

By contrast, Roosevelt argued that the president was "a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not to content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin." This meant that the president had the right and duty "to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws." In short, the president's authority came directly from the people, not the Constitution, and it was his peculiar job to discern and satisfy "the needs of the Nation" out of the general, almost plenary, grant of power given him by the people. Congress and the courts became secondary bodies--constraints on the executive's application of national will, not co-equal institutions designed to deliberate on national needs, to distinguish reason from passion in popular opinion, or to teach reverence for the Constitution. Brands fails to recognize how novel T.R.'s understanding of executive power really was.

To be sure, Roosevelt's actions as president were hardly as peremptory as his theory would suggest. He launched and won a major antitrust suit (against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad trust); cajoled the coal mining companies into arbitrating a coal strike; established the Department of Commerce and Labor; endowed the Interstate Commerce Commission with the power to set railroad shipping rates; regulated the meat-packing industry; expanded national forest preserves and parks; convened a White House conference to eliminate foul play in college football; and attempted, unsuccessfully, to foist simplified spelling on the federal government. Some of these efforts were more dubious than others, but none aimed to subvert the Constitution. In foreign affairs, of course, he was more daring. He kept the Kaiser out of Venezuela; maintained American administration of the Philippines; tacitly approved a revolution in Colombia and then proceeded to win Congress's permission to build the Panama Canal; issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine; midwifed successful negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War and to settle the status of Morocco; sent the Marines to keep the peace in Cuba; and dispatched the Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe. In short, he expanded executive authority in foreign policy, but this was a sphere into which executive power had a natural tendency and a certain constitutional warrant to roam.

His moderation abandoned him in 1912, however, when he split and then deserted the Republican Party rather than endorse the re-nomination of his successor and former friend, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt campaigned on a Progressive agenda that was aimed squarely against traditional American constitutionalism: His call for popular referendums by which voters could overturn the decisions of state supreme courts was widely regarded as a preliminary to attacking the Supreme Court itself. Here his fluid, Darwinian view of political institutions apparently bested his Lincolnian attachment to law. T.R.'s sober friend Elihu Root remarked, "Theodore has gone off upon a perfectly wild program, most of which he does not really believe in, although of course at this moment he thinks he does." Root and Henry Cabot Lodge, two of Roosevelt's closest and most conservative allies, broke with him over this campaign.

What lessons, then, should conservatives today draw from T.R.? His truculent character cannot be imitated, but it is a kind of inspiration, manfully leading us out of the Slough of Despond and away from base materialism. In foreign affairs, Roosevelt's assertions of U.S. national interest and his keen grasp of geostrategy were inherited and brilliantly revised by the Reagan administration, and must be components of any creditable conservative movement. Roosevelt counted also on an honorable foreign policy's bracing effects on national character, a connection warmly endorsed and exploited by Ronald Reagan, and today, under different circumstances, urged by Brooks and Kristol. On the domestic front, we have a much better understanding of the limits of antitrust policy and government regulation than T.R. had, but his eloquent and repeated refusal to tolerate (at least from others!) the politics of class warfare would still be a good model for Republican orators.

On the fundamental principles of our government, alas, Roosevelt is not a worthy guide. Brooks and Kristol ask, "How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?", and they look to T.R., at least partly, in order to show how vigorous nationalism and energetic government should go together. The question is an important one, and Kristol and Brooks are right to conclude that, in the long run, loving our country and hating our government cannot coexist. But a certain amount of distrust of the government is a healthy thing; in fact is a great source of American humor and even a kind of virtue--so long as this skepticism or distrust is subsumed under a love or reverence for the Constitution. If Americans were taught--or persuaded--again to love the Constitution and its principles, they would remember why and how the national government should be limited. And they would discover why only a limited government can be energetic, i.e., properly energetic in pursuit of the few, great objects confided to the national administration. It is the bloated, arrogant, trivial, and unlawful character of government today that invites hatred. In order to build respect for our national government, it has to be made constitutional again.

Theodore Roosevelt is no great ally in this effort. After all, he helped (in principle more than in practice, granted) to detach government from the Constitution and to make the national administration a general steward of the people's well-being. Yet in one respect, at least, he was on to something. Following his advice more faithfully than he did himself, conservatives today should reacquaint themselves with Washington and Lincoln, and think through how these statesmen's virtues--and their principles--may help us come to grips with our own predicament. In the long run, that may be T.R.'s most sensible contribution to "national greatness."

Essay Types: Book Review