[Surfside] The Public Interest: The Forgotten T.R.

Roman Zimmermann roman@waldenweb.com
Thu, 06 Mar 2003 17:19:06 -0600


Archived Issue - Summer 2002
The Forgotten T.R.
By Jean M. Yarbrough

Exactly 100 years after he became, at the age of 42, the youngest man 
ever to be sworn in as president of the United States, interest in 
Theodore Roosevelt is experiencing an unprecedented revival. Former 
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich loves Teddy; so does President Bush's 
campaign strategist, Karl Rove. Across the aisle, House Minority Leader 
Richard Gephardt sings his praises, while former president Bill Clinton, 
tutored by Washington Post columnist and T.R. aficionado E. J. Dionne, 
sees him as a model for the exercise of energetic executive power.

Still, no politician has identified himself so directly with the Bull 
Moose as Republican war hero John McCain. Throughout his bid for the 
Republican nomination in 2000, McCain lashed out in the manner of 
Roosevelt against the special interests that he claimed were corrupting 
American politics. Through his support for campaign-finance reform, 
national service, and through his fervent love of country, McCain sought 
to renew in his fellow citizens, and especially the young, a sense of 
patriotism, duty, sacrifice, and honor. McCain's candidacy gained 
considerable momentum from a group of maverick intellectuals and 
journalists on the right, most notably, William Kristol and David 
Brooks. In a series of articles and editorials in the Weekly Standard, 
these self-styled advocates of a "national greatness" conservatism 
supported McCain's candidacy and helped fan the Roosevelt revival. What 
they sought was a plausible Republican precedent for the vigorous 
exercise of national power and an alternative to the libertarian and 
big-business drift of the post-Reagan party establishment. Even after 
Bush's narrow victory, they continued to rail against the GOP domination 
by "special interests," and to criticize what they viewed as the growing 
isolationism of the Republican establishment.

Circumstances changed suddenly and dramatically on September 11. With 
George W. Bush adopting a more activist foreign policy and the nation 
rallying behind the president in time of war, McCain and his 
intellectual backers threw their support behind the president. But their 
goal has remained the same: To develop a set of domestic and 
foreign-policy initiatives that will capture the public imagination and 
complete the Reagan revolution by creating a permanent Republican 
majority. In their think tanks and Web sites, one appropriately named 
"Bull Moose," these conservatives urge the president to take a leaf or 
two out of T.R.'s Progressive playbook. The public seems equally 
enamored of Roosevelt, and has made the second installment of Edmund 
Morris's projected three- part biography of the twenty-sixth president a 
national bestseller. How can we explain Teddy Roosevelt's renewed appeal 
to citizens and politicians alike? And is a return to T.R.'s political 
principles what is most needed today?

     The manly virtues

Part of the fascination with Roosevelt has always been his 
larger-than-life personality. A child of established wealth who found 
glory in cultivating the "iron" virtues of a sterner era, Roosevelt had 
nothing but contempt for the Gilded Age, when capitalist entrepreneurs 
such as J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie far 
outshone the second-rate politicians of the day. "Purely commercial 
ideals," Roosevelt wrote, were "mean and sordid," producing weak and 
fearful men, "incapable of the thrill of generous emotion," and lacking 
in the capacity for nobility and greatness. The things that stirred 
T.R.'s romantic soul were different. He adored politics and the 
physicality of ranching. He organized and lead the volunteer cavalry 
regiment of Rough Riders in Cuba. He excoriated his enemies in the most 
colorful terms - "mollycoddle" and "goo-goo" (short for good-government 
types) were two of his more memorable neologisms. Roosevelt took on the 
trusts and their powerful heads. A frank advocate of American power, he 
led the construction of the Panama Canal and sent the Navy around the 
world for the first time. His energy seemed never to flag. He shot big 
game in Africa, explored the then-uncharted Amazon River, and fathered 
many healthy children, delighting in their antics.

These aspects of Roosevelt's life have enduring appeal. But there are 
also significant parallels between his time and ours that help to 
explain his popularity today. The closing decades of both the nineteenth 
and the twentieth centuries were periods of enormous wealth creation and 
consolidation. In T.R.'s day, these tendencies prompted worries about 
the power of money and special interests to corrupt republican 
government, and the disinclination of the nation's leading citizens to 
do anything about it. Well-bred young men from respectable families 
regarded the rough and tumble of democratic politics as beneath them. In 
the decades following the Civil War, few men of the upper class 
concerned themselves with politics at all, and those who did were 
mostly, in Roosevelt's words, "well-meaning little men, with receding 
chins and small feet," zealous and idealistic, but totally ineffectual. 
Or, as George Washington Plunkitt memorably described them, they were 
"dudes that part their names in the middle."

Roosevelt set out to change all that when, fresh out of Harvard in 1880, 
he threw himself into ward politics in New York City and shortly 
thereafter was elected to the state legislature. Almost immediately, he 
made news by exposing the rampant bribery and extortion in the 
legislature. By standing up to the machine politicians and "special 
interests" that dominated New York politics, the young Roosevelt made 
politics once again respectable for a whole generation of eager 
reformers. In an era dominated by laissez-faire ideology, Roosevelt 
thought politicians could actually do something to make life better for 
the average citizen, and he had a rollicking good time trying.

As a wealthy New Yorker and an admirer of Alexander Hamilton, Roosevelt 
might have been expected to take a more sympathetic view of the kind of 
character produced in the commercial East. But in numerous speeches and 
shorter essays during the 1880s and 1890s, Roosevelt cast the prosperous 
East Coast as the symbol of all that was decadent and effeminate in 
post-Civil War America. In "The American Boy," Roosevelt invidiously 
compared the ways in which wealthy eastern lads amused themselves, such 
as playing billiards, with the rude but virile education of the frontier 
boy. And in "The Manly Virtues and Practical Ideals," written after his 
own transformative adventures in the West, Roosevelt opined that 
Americans must "be vigorous in mind and body, able to hold our own in 
rough conflict with our fellows, able to suffer punishment without 
flinching, and, at need, be able to repay it in kind with full 
interest." Such virile traits were precisely what a "peaceful and 
commercial civilization," rendered "cautious and timid," was all too 
inclined to dismiss. Living in a rougher age, pioneers, frontiersmen, 
and cowboys instinctively knew that they must cultivate the "manly 
virtues" or perish. The task confronting Roosevelt's "softer" age was to 
find some way to keep these qualities alive when the immediate necessity 
for them no longer existed.

Roosevelt's response was to encourage the manly virtues by all available 
means, including stints in the Wild West and participation in rough 
intercollegiate sports such as football. (Not surprisingly, he regarded 
the rise of spectator sports as another sign of American decadence.) All 
this play was but preparation for the supreme test of manhood - battle, 
which Roosevelt experienced firsthand in Cuba during the 
Spanish-American War. When World War I broke out, the aging Roosevelt 
sought to organize another volunteer regiment along the lines of the 
Rough Riders, but had to content himself with seeing all of his five 
sons march off to war, one of them never to return. On hearing that his 
son Quentin had been killed, T.R. wrote to his son Archie: "He died as 
the heroes of old died: as brave and fearless men must die when a great 
cause calls. If our country did not contain such men it would not be our 

     Vigorous policies

As a Republican reformer, Roosevelt was not simply concerned about the 
genteel decadence of the upper class. He also worried about the effect 
of unbridled capitalism on the the poor, and especially those recently 
arrived in America. Beginning with his earliest efforts to outlaw the 
manufacture of cigars in tenement apartments in New York City, 
Roosevelt's reform efforts were aimed at making it easier for the 
average man to support his family and to participate in civic life. He 
understood why the working classes remained loyal to their local ward 
heelers and political machines, but he tried to show them that reform 
Republicans could also work for their interests, and with far less 
corruption of the political system.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were a time of enormous 
social upheaval. The country struggled over questions involving safety 
in the workplace, minimum-wage and maximum-hours legislation, and 
women's rights, and anxiety grew about the decline of family life and 
moral virtue. A Progressive on political and economic questions, 
Roosevelt retained Victorian attitudes about family and moral matters, 
decrying the rise in divorce and the loosening of sexual mores. For 
Roosevelt, it was axiomatic that no nation could achieve greatness 
unless its family life was sound. "If we fail to appreciate this, we 
fail to appreciate the root of morality on which all healthy 
civilization is based," he declared.

Immigration was also rapidly transforming American society at the 
beginning of the twentieth century. For the first time, Americans had to 
deal with a large influx of immigrants from eastern and southern 
European countries, who did not speak English, and who were Catholic and 
Jewish rather than Protestant. Roosevelt responded to this challenge by 
insisting that all immigrants be assimilated in language and culture as 
quickly as possible. By assimilation, Roosevelt meant a willingness to 
learn English (he wanted to deport immigrants if they had not learned 
English in five years), adapt to American culture (he deplored what he 
called the hyphenated-American), and, by the third generation, to 
intermarry. When it came to violent criminal behavior by foreigners, 
Roosevelt was adamant: "They and those like them should be kept out of 
this country, and if found here they should be promptly deported to the 
country whence they came."

Roosevelt also responded to the challenge of industrialization by 
accepting unequivocally the new economic order, while making the case 
for a greatly expanded national government to regulate the trusts in the 
name of the public good. The alternative, put forth by Woodrow Wilson 
and the Democratic party, was to break up the trusts in an effort to 
restore competition and revive the mid-nineteenth century market of 
small enterprises. But Roosevelt believed that these large trusts and 
corporations offered considerable economies of scale, and was generally 
unwilling to see them broken up - unless, like the sugar, tobacco, and 
oil trusts, they were engaged in criminal conspiracies or fraudulent 
activities. Though public opinion tended to side with the trust-busters, 
Roosevelt believed that the more efficient approach (and efficiency was 
the Progressive virtue) was to establish independent federal regulatory 
commissions that would compel the trusts to serve the public interest.

On the institutional front, America's political parties were moribund. 
As Roosevelt frequently noted, the Republican party was first formed out 
of opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories. Back in 
the days of Lincoln, the party stood for something more than mere 
economic interests; it was animated by a high moral cause. But during 
the post-bellum period, the Republican party had lost its sense of moral 
purpose and fallen into the mundane, Whiggish task of promoting the 
economic interests of the business classes. Roosevelt tried to revive 
the moral idealism of the Republican party by hitching it to the cause 
of political and economic reform. When he failed to win the party's 
endorsement in 1912, he broke with the Republicans and formed his own 
Progressive, or Bull Moose, party.

     The steward

Another explanation for Roosevelt's appeal today is his expansive theory 
of executive power. Roosevelt saw the president as the "steward of the 
people," with the right and the duty to do whatever the needs of the 
nation required, unless such action was specifically prohibited by the 
Constitution or congressional law. The idea of "stewardship" meant that 
the president would no longer need to cite a specific grant of power to 
justify his actions. Unlike previous executives, Roosevelt would not 
content himself with the negative virtue of not doing harm when he was 
convinced he could accomplish so much good. This was a novel reading of 
executive power, and one that paved the way for the gradual transfer of 
the source of presidential authority from the Constitution to the people.

As "steward of the people," Roosevelt argued that the national 
government must have the power to curb monopolies. In the landmark 
Northern Securities Case (1903), he persuaded a divided Supreme Court to 
uphold this interpretation. Thus fortified, he took on - and vanquished 
- the major trusts of his day, including tobacco, sugar, and oil. 
Stewardship allowed the government not only to intervene to punish 
unlawful monopolies and criminal conspiracies but to use its powers to 
regulate private industries like meatpacking, or mediate disputes, like 
those in the coal-mining industry, that affected the public welfare. 
Roosevelt was not a fan of trust-busting; he favored relying on federal 
regulatory commissions comprised of disinterested experts. He tended to 
regard competition as an historical relic, and looked on cooperation 
between business and government as the wave of the future.

After winning reelection in his own right, Roosevelt felt free to press 
his more expansive theory of executive power still further. His Annual 
Message of 1905, the first of his second term, unleashed a flurry of 
legislative proposals, including pure-food, meat, and drug-inspection 
laws, government supervision of insurance companies, government 
investigation of child labor conditions, employer-liability laws for 
Washington, D.C., and a proposal to give the Interstate Commerce 
Commission power to regulate railroad shipping rates. This last 
proposal, which Roosevelt signed into law as the Hepburn Act in 1906, 
arguably laid the foundation for the modern regulatory state. By the end 
of his second administration, Roosevelt was calling for graduated income 
and inheritance taxes and was criticizing the judiciary for being too 
subservient to corporate interests. Roosevelt continued to affirm that 
the purpose of government was to secure the rights of the individual to 
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But he reinterpreted these 
rights in the light of changed economic and social conditions: "The 
rights of the worker to a living wage, to reasonable hours of labor, to 
decent working and living conditions, to freedom of thought and speech 
and industrial representation." To secure these rights, the federal 
government must assume a far more expansive role.

In what became one of the hallmarks of his administration, Roosevelt 
invoked the stewardship theory to justify the use of federal power to 
conserve America's natural resources. During his presidency, the federal 
government acted to establish the national park system, along with 
wildlife refuges and national monuments. Yet unlike many of today's 
environmentalists, Roosevelt did not seek to bar private corporations 
from developing public lands. Instead, his conservation efforts were 
aimed at ensuring that these resources were developed so as to increase 
their future usefulness and at making sure that the public received fair 
compensation. Closely related to these efforts was Roosevelt's belief 
that stewardship carried with it an aesthetic dimension: America should 
display its greatness in public buildings, sculptures, monuments, coins, 
and medals. Accordingly, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to 
design a new system of coins for the federal Mint that he judged "more 
beautiful than any coins since the days of the Greeks." He also 
appointed a Fine Arts Council, consisting of artists and architects, to 
"advise the Government on the erection and decoration of all new 
buildings," and commissioned artists to design national medals and 
public buildings in Washington. Roosevelt justified these actions as 
adding "to the beauty of living and therefore to the joy of life."

Finally, stewardship found its expression in Roosevelt's muscular 
foreign policy, though there was more of a constitutional warrant for 
the vigorous exercise of executive power in this area. Although 
Roosevelt detested boasting, he made it clear to other nations that the 
United States would always be ready to back up its words with actions. 
He was guided by the maxim: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." As 
president, he reaffirmed and expanded the Monroe Doctrine not only to 
bar European meddling in the Americas but to justify intervention by the 
United States throughout the Western Hemisphere. Pursuant to this idea, 
which became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, T.R. dispatched American 
troops to Santo Domingo and the Isthmus of Panama, then under the 
control of Colombia. After securing Panamanian independence, the United 
States entered into a treaty to construct and administer the Panama 
Canal. In recognition of America's growing power, Roosevelt was asked to 
mediate the end of the Russo-Japanese War and, for his efforts, became 
the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. To crown his 
foreign-policy achievements, in 1907 the commander-in-chief dispatched 
the Great White Fleet on a worldwide cruise to win popular support for 
the administration's ambitious naval build-up and to demonstrate the 
power of the American naval forces to the world.

     A man for our times?

It is not difficult to see why the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt 
resonates today. His statement at the outbreak of World War I that "the 
things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, 
peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty first, the love of soft 
living and the get-rich-quick theory of life" seems startlingly relevant 
now that the prosperous, triumphant 1990s have collapsed in an economic 
scandal and a devastating terrorist attack. By his forceful rhetoric and 
personal example, Roosevelt reminds us that what counts most "in the 
great battle of life" is not riches, intelligence, or bodily perfection, 
but character, and above all, "courage, perseverance and self-reliance."

Furthermore, during the past decade as in the late nineteenth century, 
there had arisen a feeling that our political parties had retreated from 
large ambitions and were pandering shamelessly to their narrow bases, as 
well as their wealthy donors. Critics complained that the Republican 
party had not taken a principled stand since Ronald Reagan confronted 
the "evil empire." In recent years, the party had been accused of 
drifting toward isolationism (in opposing United States action in 
Kosovo), and of selling out to its corporate donors (especially in its 
relationship with China). In domestic matters, the party seemed to deny 
any role for government in improving the lives of its citizens. Nor did 
the Democratic party seem to stand for any significant moral principle. 
"Triangulation" - the political strategy associated with Clinton - is 
"small politics" writ large. Candidate Al Gore failed to persuade 
Americans that he possessed any vision at all. The appeal of a figure 
like Roosevelt, who fought corruption, reinvigorated the party system, 
and took on bold, principled projects is clear.

It is also not difficult to see why "national greatness" conservatives 
in particular are enamored with the Roosevelt presidency. The T.R. 
revival is a means for these maverick Republican intellectuals to break 
the crippling grip of libertarians on the party's domestic policy and 
corporate interests on its foreign policy. One of the GOP's perennial 
challenges is persuading skeptical middle- and working-class voters that 
it is not just the party of the wealthy. Roosevelt's progressive 
regulations offer a model for escaping the taint of corruption and 
capturing the hearts of the working class. At the same time, national 
greatness is a way to channel the powerful impulses of religious 
conservatives into a more inclusive civil religion. Moreover, 
Roosevelt's assimilationist immigration policy, coupled with his 
zero-tolerance for acts of political violence by noncitizens, provides a 
positive alternative to multiculturalism in a time when Republicans 
struggle to attract immigrant voters.

The events of September 11 have given strength to the efforts of 
national-greatness conservatives to endow the president with an expanded 
mandate abroad and to allow a more energetic governmental presence 
domestically. More generally, the terrorist attacks have promoted a 
renewal of patriotic pride and social solidarity. National-greatness 
conservatism seems ascendant in the Republican party and perhaps the 
country at large. But is the Roosevelt revival something Americans, and 
Republicans in particular, should welcome?

     The dark side

Although there is something undeniably attractive about Teddy Roosevelt, 
and never more so than in time of war, there is also something decidedly 
odd about the Right's (even the maverick Right's) embrace of him. In 
theory and in practice, Roosevelt's views display a hostility to both 
the Founders' understanding of the political principles that underlie 
republican self-government and to the principles of the Republican party 
as articulated by Roosevelt's hero, Abraham Lincoln.

It is sometimes said (by Republicans) that there are two Roosevelts, a 
"good" Republican reformer, and a "bad" Progressive crusader - the 
first, the author of American Ideals (1897), the second, of the 
radically different Realizable Ideals (1912). This distinction is true, 
as far as it goes. But it is a mistake for modern Republicans to admire 
too much even the early Roosevelt. For although the young Roosevelt did 
esteem the constitutional system established by the Framers, and 
especially the strong nationalists at the Constitutional Convention - 
George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris - he 
fundamentally rejected their individualist view of human nature and 
politics, favoring instead a Darwinian and racialist reading of American 

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in his early historical studies, 
where Roosevelt defended the policy of unlimited westward expansion 
known as Manifest Destiny. In contrast to both the Founders and Lincoln, 
who expressed doubt about how far free republican institutions could be 
extended, especially as the United States expanded into the Southwest, 
the young Roosevelt had no such qualms. In his 1886 biography of Thomas 
Hart Benton, the Democratic senator from Missouri most closely 
associated with this policy, as well as in his two-volume history of 
American expansion, The Winning of the West (1889), Roosevelt not only 
defended Manifest Destiny, but did so in unapologetic Darwinian terms. 
It was both inevitable and desirable that these brawling westerners 
should seek to swallow up the lands occupied by nations or races too 
weak to resist, he argued. Such expansion was "part of the order of 
nature." In Texas, the Mexicans proved no match for the virtues of that 
"barbaric race" of frontiersmen, who, "careless of the rights of 
others," looked on the possessions of the weaker races as their "natural 

Roosevelt's treatment of the American encounter with native Americans 
was equally unsentimental. In his view, it was "maudlin nonsense" to 
defend the Indians' claims to the West. The tribes currently occupying 
these lands had no moral claims; they were there simply because they had 
succeeded in butchering earlier tribes. If anything, Americans were to 
be praised for their treatment of the Indians. "No other conquering and 
colonizing nation," he wrote in The Winning of the West, "has ever 
treated the original savage owners of the soil with such generosity as 
has the United States."

Nor was Roosevelt's enthusiasm for Manifest Destiny limited to the 
weaker, more backward races. Where American territorial ambitions were 
concerned, Roosevelt yielded to no one, not even the "civilized" 
British. Accordingly, he retrospectively endorsed Benton's refusal to 
compromise with Britain over Oregon on the grounds that, "we were the 
people who could use it best, and we ought to have taken it all." The 
United States, Roosevelt believed, should have claimed all of the lands 
in the Oregon Territory at the outset and then sent in armed settlers to 
occupy them. Presented with a fait accompli, the British would have been 
in no position to resist, and the United States could have claimed the 
entire Northwest as its prize. Roosevelt could scarcely hide his 
disappointment that national policy at the time was largely shaped by 
the "more cautious and timid" wealthy classes of the Northeast, who 
"have never felt much of the spirit which made the West stretch out 
impatiently for new lands."

     The demagogue?

The contrast with Roosevelt's hero, Lincoln, could not be more striking. 
Not only did Lincoln support the Whig policy of conciliation with Great 
Britain, but he warned that the annexation of Texas would further 
complicate the problem of slavery. Roosevelt, by contrast, insisted that 
Manifest Destiny had little, if anything, to do with slavery. Rather, it 
had to do the insatiable "greed" (as T.R. approvingly described it) of 
all westerners to lay claim to whatever territory they could wrest from 
weaker, inferior races and establish themselves as "heirs of the earth," 
or at least of North America. Like his ancestors before the Civil War, 
Roosevelt leaned toward the Democrats of this period, rather than toward 
Lincoln. He failed to appreciate, as Lincoln did, that the logic of 
Manifest Destiny, with its talk of race-mastery, would lead many 
southern Democrats to choose the extension of slavery over the 
preservation of the Union. Writing with the advantage of hindsight, 
secure in the knowledge that the North would win the Civil War, 
Roosevelt seemed to take for granted that Manifest Destiny would result 
in the spread of freedom.

Roosevelt's celebration of western expansion flies in the face of 
America's founding principles in still another respect. For what kind of 
freedom celebrates, as Roosevelt did, the right of the stronger race to 
conquer and dominate the weaker? This is the language of Cleon, the 
Athenian demagogue, or Nietzsche. It is not the language of Washington, 
Hamilton, and Lincoln, all of whom accepted the self-evident truths of 
the Declaration, according to which legitimate government rests on the 
consent of the governed and exists to secure the equal rights of all.

While Roosevelt the historian relied on a crude social Darwinism based 
on a clear racial hierarchy to justify American expansion in the West, 
Roosevelt the warrior switched course a decade later in defense of 
American imperial rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines after 
the Spanish-American War. He insisted that rule over these former 
Spanish colonies was justified only to the extent that it served the 
native peoples in their struggle toward civilization. However, he also 
defended America's new imperial role on the grounds that it provided a 
solution to the problem of how to keep alive the "manly virtues" after 
the frontier had closed. Yet this raises even larger questions. What 
happens to republican self-government when the "manly virtues" are 
divorced from the Founders' commitment to limited government and placed 
in the service of continual expansion and growth? Is it true, as 
Roosevelt believed, that nations must either expand or decline? Or, to 
put the question somewhat differently, to what extent did Roosevelt's 
attempt to overcome the softness, timidity, and excessive materialism he 
despised depend on continued external "strife," as he himself insisted 
in "The Strenuous Life"? And is there not in Roosevelt a disturbing 
tendency to see war and the heroism it calls forth as the culmination of 
political life? If so, then Roosevelt's idea of national greatness is 
fundamentally at odds with republican self-government.

     Darwinism, race, and domestic policy

The early Roosevelt's tendency to view nations in racial terms, and to 
see social progress as a function of biological evolution, tended to 
spill over into public-policy matters as well. A leading Republican 
reformer in the 1880s and 1890s, Roosevelt had also acquired a 
reputation as a public intellectual. In a book review written in 1894, 
the same year he was considering a run for mayor of New York City, 
Roosevelt noted approvingly that democratic nations have instinctively 
practiced a healthy "race selfishness" by preserving for the white race 
the most temperate parts of the globe. He praised these same democratic 
societies for recognizing the "race foe" and excluding "dangerous 
alien[s]" from their territories. (The enslavement of blacks he 
considered a throwback to aristocratic times.) Although Roosevelt was 
willing to accept large numbers of non-Protestant immigrants, he drew 
the line when it came to race. Like many in his generation, Roosevelt 
regarded race, however loosely and even inconsistently defined, as the 
great organizing principle of civilization, and he supported measures 
that would maintain the distinctiveness of the white race. Accordingly, 
he supported tight immigration policies for nonwhites, and maintained 
that unrestricted Asian immigration on the Pacific Coast would be a 

While Roosevelt continued during this period to divide the world up into 
civilizations based on a hierarchy of races, he began to retreat from 
the social Darwinism that informed his analysis in The Winning of the 
West. In that work, he had seen the triumph of the English-speaking race 
in terms of natural selection, or survival of the fittest. But now he 
gave greater weight to the Lamarckian theory of adaptation to explain 
survival and social progress. In an 1895 review of several books on 
evolution, Roosevelt argued that what mattered was not so much who the 
fittest were, but how well the unfit could adapt and pass on to their 
progeny the character traits of the fittest. These, he thought, included 
not only selfish traits but certain altruistic qualities as well: "love 
of order, ability to fight and breed well, [and a] capacity to 
subordinate the interests of the individual to the interests of the 
community." Though the review did not discuss the plight of blacks in 
America, the implications for racial progress were clear. Even though 
Roosevelt regarded the black race as intellectually and morally inferior 
to the white race at that particular historical moment, he believed 
blacks could make progress by adapting themselves to the more advanced 
white race and genetically passing these traits on to their children.

As science, of course, the theory of adaptation was nonsense, as 
Roosevelt was forced to admit at the end of his life. But the larger 
problem was that the young Roosevelt, who had been trained as a natural 
scientist at Harvard at a time when Darwin's theories were gaining 
widespread acceptance among the educated classes, assumed that 
evolutionary biology provided the key to understanding how society 
worked and how social progress occurred. Progress was guaranteed as long 
as societies acted in conformity with these newly discovered laws of 
nature, which viewed persons in terms of distinct racial categories, 
rather than as individuals. Nor did these theories place much stock in 
natural rights. The view of nature that informed social Darwinism was a 
far different thing from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to 
which the Declaration of Independence appealed.

     Roosevelt the Progressive

By 1910, when Roosevelt embarked on his Progressive crusade, he had 
toned down the racialism and largely abandoned the social Darwinism that 
supplied the intellectual framework for his early reformer period. (He 
did, however, continue to back tough immigration restrictions for 
nonwhites, and to warn Americans against "race suicide" through a 
failure to be "good breeders.") Roosevelt followed the general evolution 
of Progressive thought, shifting from science to history to explain the 
course of social progress. In turning to history, T.R. was not embarking 
on an entirely new course. His early studies had been informed by a 
belief in historical progress, though a progress cast principally in the 
Darwinian language that dominated the 1880s. But now history - 
understood in Hegelian terms, as a movement from the plane of low, 
selfish interests to the higher one of ethical, self-sacrificing ideals 
- became the organizing principle of his thought and action.

Roosevelt first elaborated on this theme in a 1910 speech entitled "The 
World Movement," given, appropriately, at the University of Berlin, 
where Hegel had taught. Roosevelt surveyed the movement of history from 
one stage of civilization to another and concluded that progress to "a 
higher and more permanent plane of well-being than was ever attained by 
any preceding civilization" was still possible. Roosevelt envisioned the 
emergence of states in which material needs were not achieved at the 
expense of "the things of the soul." Peace and justice would exist side 
by side with the virile virtues, morality and brotherhood would be 
divorced from "false sentimentality," and science would flourish 
alongside goodness.

After a whirlwind tour of the European capitals, the former president 
returned to the United States to do battle for the soul of the 
Republican party. Over the next two years, as he unsuccessfully sought 
the Republican nomination and then ran for president on the Progressive 
party ticket, Roosevelt tried to explain concretely what the Progressive 
movement might mean for America. To begin with, it meant a rejection of 
American "exceptionalism." America had once prided herself on her 
republican institutions and her superiority to the monarchies of Europe. 
But Roosevelt the Progressive argued that the United States was now 
lagging behind the governments of western Europe, and especially 
Germany, in her commitment to social welfare. America, he argued, must 
belatedly join the movement of world history.

The Progressive movement also meant the end of the old "shopworn" notion 
of individual rights and property rights. Because these rights were 
grounded on an understanding of human nature as essentially 
self-interested, Roosevelt regarded the whole idea of natural rights as 
scientifically wrong and ethically obsolete. Darwin had shown that human 
beings were constantly evolving, and Roosevelt could see that the 
Americans of his day were different from what they had been even 100 
years before. The days of the pioneer were over. Human beings, Roosevelt 
thought, could adapt to changing conditions and pass on these changes 
genetically to their offspring. They could progress beyond the selfish 
passions that underlay what in these vastly different times was nothing 
more than a "sentimental attachment to the rights of man."

 From an ethical standpoint, the doctrine of natural rights fared no 
better. It encouraged an "abnormal and excessive development of 
individualism in a few," while failing to satisfy the spiritual, and 
often even the material, needs of the great majority. At best, natural 
rights attained a purely "legal" justice, in which the property rights 
of the individual were protected without regard for the well-being of 
the majority. If America was to progress to "ethical" justice, citizens 
would have to learn to think less about their individual rights and more 
about rights "developed in duty."

In his "New Nationalism" speech of August 1910, Roosevelt explained what 
this meant for property rights. The test of whether a man had a right to 
his fortune should no longer be whether it was honorably obtained. It 
was not enough that it should have been made without harming the 
community. Because the value of property was socially determined, the 
new test of whether one might enjoy the fortune one had made must be 
social utility. Those who enjoyed "special privileges" must show that 
their wealth, power, and position actually benefitted the community. 
And, ultimately, it was the community that would decide.

As a result, the Progressive movement placed a heavy emphasis on 
education, for Americans could not learn to think differently about 
rights without first acquiring new moral and civic virtues. The "new 
republic" would require a superior kind of citizen, capable of mastering 
his passions and appetites and following the dictates of conscience 
rather than interest. As Roosevelt never tired of saying, in this ascent 
to a higher moral plane the average person would need "many virtues." 
Roosevelt was absolutely correct when he observed that Progressivism, 
though it sought certain economic reforms, was essentially "an ethical 
movement" aimed at nothing less than the reconstruction of the American 

     Power to the people

Roosevelt's attack on individual rights arguably meant a rejection of 
the very idea of constitutional government, though Roosevelt himself 
denied this. In his view, the purpose of the U.S. Constitution was not 
to protect the rights of the individual but to secure the happiness of 
the many. Majority tyranny may once have been a danger, but no longer. 
In his day, it was the wealthy minority that rode roughshod over the 
majority. The task of the Progressive statesman was to help the people 
wrest control of their government from the special interests who used 
the Constitution to defeat the popular will. The people must become 
their own masters. Nothing must limit their will, not even the 
Constitution. Roosevelt supported Progressive reforms that would enable 
the people to legislate directly through the initiative and referendum; 
hold their representatives accountable through direct elections and 
recall; and even to reverse state court decisions when, after "due 
deliberation," the people determined that these rulings ran contrary to 
the collective good. Roosevelt argued that these reforms did not, as 
their critics contended, spell the end of representative government, 
with its constitutional safeguards. Rather, they would make 
representatives more responsive, hold the representatives accountable to 
the will of the people, and help the people achieve genuine 
self-mastery. Accordingly, Roosevelt could declare himself both a 
supporter of the "absolute right" of the people to govern themselves and 
an "emphatic" believer in constitutionalism.

In asserting the absolute right of the people to govern themselves, 
Roosevelt claimed to be following in the footsteps of his hero, Lincoln, 
whom he cited in almost every important speech throughout the 
Progressive campaign. Among the things that T.R. admired was Lincoln's 
opposition to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, since Roosevelt 
sought to do battle with those state and federal court decisions that 
elevated the rights of property over the wishes of people. But try as he 
might to associate himself with Lincoln's position, and in turn 
appropriate Lincoln for the Progressive cause, the two were 
fundamentally irreconcilable.

Whether mistakenly or by design, the Progressive Roosevelt read 
Lincoln's First Inaugural as an affirmation of his own emerging view 
that the majority of the moment was sovereign even over the 
Constitution. But when Lincoln announced in the First Inaugural that the 
people and not the Court were ultimately sovereign, he was not claiming 
that the people had the right to overrule an unpopular Supreme Court 
decision. Instead, he tried to work within the constitutional system to 
overturn the decision. By Roosevelt's own definition, Lincoln was not a 
Progressive but a "reactionary." In opposing slavery, Lincoln looked 
back to the "old policy of the Fathers," and sought to lead a wayward 
nation back to its founding principle of equal rights for all - within 
the limits laid down by the Constitution. He did not, as Roosevelt did, 
declare those principles, or the country's fundamental charter, obsolete 
in the light of changing economic and social conditions.

While it is arguable whether the enactment of specific Progressive 
reforms undermined or reinforced constitutional government, there is no 
doubt that Progressive ideology in its fullest form sought to discard 
the Framer's vision of limited government. Roosevelt explicitly said so, 
and with some relish. In a campaign speech in 1912, Roosevelt criticized 
his opponent Woodrow Wilson precisely for his defense of limited 
government. In keeping with his historicist premises, Roosevelt 
considered the idea of limited government a relic of an earlier age. 
"This is a bit of outworn academic doctrine.... It can be applied with 
profit, if anywhere at all, only in a primitive community such as the 
United States at the end of the eighteenth century." At the beginning of 
the twentieth century, limited government, with its separation of powers 
and divided government, fostered a "chaotic scramble of selfish 
interests." And to a Progressive crusader bent on leading the nation to 
a higher moral plane, all interests that were not "the public interest" 
were selfish and corrupt.

In his definition of corruption, as well as in his remedy, Roosevelt had 
moved well beyond where he began. As a Republican reformer, T.R. had 
established himself on the political scene by attacking specific forms 
of corruption, such as bribery and extortion. He had judged it 
unrealistic, even demagogic, to try to ban campaign contributions by 
corporations, instead arguing for full disclosure of all contributions. 
Roosevelt had dismissed as "mischievous and untrue" the doctrine that 
the will of the people should prevail over the Constitution and had 
heaped scorn on those politicians who proclaimed the moral perfection of 
the average voter. He had believed that the nation faced two great 
dangers, corruption and demagoguery, and that the task of the public 
official was to steer a course between them.

But by the time of his Progressive campaign, only one evil remained. The 
line between Roosevelt's statesmanship and demagoguery had blurred, just 
as the Founders had predicted it would if public officials constantly 
took their case to the people. Dazzled by his Progressive rhetoric, 
which extolled reason and conscience while denigrating interests as low 
and sordid, Roosevelt came to regard any interest that did not actively 
benefit the public as a whole as a "special interest." There was no 
place in ethical government for such interests. In almost biblical 
language, Roosevelt declared: "Special interests must be driven out of 
politics." To this end, he reiterated his call for a law that would 
prohibit the use of corporate funds "directly or indirectly for 
political purposes." The new republic he sought to usher in must rise 
above interest-group rivalries; it must henceforth consider politics 
from the standpoint of morality. For nations, like individuals, had 
souls, and what was at stake was nothing less than the soul of the 
nation. Thus the task of "ethical government," as Roosevelt had signaled 
in his Berlin speech, was to foster material and spiritual satisfaction. 
>From 1910 on, he would drive home that point in ever more prophetic 
language, even as his actions consigned his party to defeat.

     Moving beyond rhetoric

In the short run, Roosevelt's crusade for righteousness was 
electrifying. One can only imagine what it was like at the Progressive 
nominating convention when Roosevelt concluded his acceptance speech 
with "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord," and the 
faithful replied by chanting "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." But seen 
from the vantage point of today, Progressivism looks like nothing so 
much as a desiccated form of liberal Protestantism, a displacement onto 
the secular world of whatever remained of religious belief for educated 
Protestants after Darwin. As such, it was destined in the early decades 
of the twentieth century to be relegated to the sidelines, as new waves 
of Catholic and Jewish immigrants sought the benefits of freedom and 
prosperity that America had always offered its newcomers, rather than a 
thin, but still identifiably Protestant, moral revival. But as the 
descendents of these immigrants shed their own religious beliefs, and 
grew disenchanted with "mere" material goods and the satisfaction of 
"selfish" interests, it was inevitable that the progressive spirit would 
rise again.

In today's troubled times, T.R.'s stirring rhetoric can help to brace us 
to our duty and renew a sense of patriotism and national honor among our 
citizens. But on the more fundamental questions of what we stand for as 
a republic, Roosevelt is far less useful. For he accepted far too 
uncritically the reigning beliefs of his day - that the Declaration and 
the Constitution had outlived their usefulness; that through evolution, 
human beings might overcome their selfish natures; that majority tyranny 
was no longer a threat to our political institutions; that elected 
officials might be freed from constitutional restraints; and that panels 
of disinterested experts could be trusted to rule in the public 
interest. In the search for a usable past, we would be better off to 
take a fresh look at the Founders and then consider how Roosevelt's hero 
Lincoln remained faithful to their vision under radically altered 
conditions. From such lessons, we may then come to understand better how 
our republican institutions can be preserved in our own time.

Jean M. Yarbrough is professor of political philosophy at Bowdoin 
College and author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the 
Character of a Free People (University Press of Kansas, 1998).

This essay is adapted from the author's Inaugural Lecture as Gary M. 
Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences in October 2001.