Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition
by Jean M. Yarbrough.
University of Kansas Press, 2012.
Cloth, 337 pp., $40.

Just what is the “American political tradition?” Better than sixty years ago the noted American historian, Richard Hofstadter, tried to define it through a series of essays on the “men who made it.” Among the targets of the liberal Professor Hofstadter was Theodore Roosevelt, whom he dubbed the “conservative as progressive.” By Hofstadter’s account, TR’s embrace of progressivism was an act of political opportunism undertaken to advance himself, while freeing the country from the clutches of what he called the “wealthy criminal class” and keeping it out of the hands of a “lunatic fringe” of populists, socialists, and anarchists.

If Hofstadter had it right, this Roosevelt was very much in the mainstream of an ever-evolving, reform-minded, pragmatically progressive American political tradition. Jean Yarbrough begs to differ. In making her case, Yarbrough posits not one, but two such traditions: the first was based on the founding principles of the country and “limited,” if occasionally “energetic” government; the second has been driven by the progressive alternative of government by disinterested experts, i.e., the “administrative state” put forth by TR, built by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, and now dramatically expanded upon by Barack Obama.

Admittedly a critic of progressivism and its “relentless push toward greater equality in the name of social justice,” Yarbrough seeks to separate TR not just from the Founders, but from his chief political hero, Abraham Lincoln, as well. The case that she makes is at once compelling and troubling—and yet somehow inviting as well, especially to those seeking to counter what progressivism has wrought.

It has long been a staple of progressive historiography that Roosevelt and company sought to use “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.” In other words, the presumed goal of the original progressives was innocent enough. Their animating idea was to resort to big government simply to help naturally rugged American individualists return to or otherwise preserve their rugged individualism. Yarbrough thinks otherwise. If she is right, Roosevelt far exceeded Hamiltonian means and all in the name of transcending anything remotely Jeffersonian.

An important figure in all of this was the journalist, Herbert Croly, whose major work, The Promise of American Life, clearly influenced TR, even as it strikes a decidedly Obamaesque chord today. What was needed to achieve Croly’s “promise” was not reform, but a “wholesale reconstruction” of American society. Sound familiar? Such a reconstruction, which was bent on advancing equality at the expense of liberty, was something that TR initiated as president and pursued with a vengeance in the final decade of his life.

Not that the youthful TR was either a true conservative or a devoted disciple of America’s founders. Yarbrough begins her story with TR’s undergraduate years and the impact of Darwinian ideas on this budding biologist’s impressionable mind. There is little doubt that those ideas continued to influence him long after he abandoned natural science for a career in politics and government. Yarbrough continues her account with a Germanic double-whammy of sorts. Not only did historicist Hegelian ideas add fuel to the Darwinian fire in TR’s mind, but the seemingly positive example of the German welfare state drove him to begin working to impose the same on the United States.

Conventional wisdom has it that Roosevelt entered the political arena as a conventional conservative. Not so, argues Yarbrough. Her Theodore Roosevelt was intellectually a man of the left before he was a political figure of any sort or stripe. Not only that, but Roosevelt proved to be that rarest of political birds in that he flew increasingly leftward as he grew older. To be sure, TR always thought of himself as a Lincoln Republican. Once again, Yarbrough dissents. At best, Roosevelt was a selective Lincoln man. If the first Republican president could resort to extra-legal means to fight a civil war, well then, TR could do the same to defeat his enemies. Never mind that Lincoln’s opponents were secessionists determined to destroy the Union and preserve slavery.

In his famous Osawatomie “New Nationalist” speech, Roosevelt praised the Lincoln who contended that “labor is prior to, and independent of capital (which) is only the fruit of labor.” Yarbrough reminds us that in that same speech Lincoln went on to caution his listeners: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently, and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” In 1910 a certain ex-president bent on returning to the White House ignored that line—and sentiment—while seeking to enlist Mr. Lincoln, the “most real of our dead presidents,” in his campaign to return to the White House.

Not coincidentally, our current president returned to Osawatomie on the eve of his re-election bid. There he sought to make the case that he was nothing more than a TR progressive, while simultaneously wrapping himself in the Lincoln mantle. While Yarbrough has little quarrel with the TR-Obama parallel, she cannot accept an Obama-Lincoln link any more than she can abide the TR-Lincoln connection. Unlike Lincoln, at the core of Roosevelt’s patriotism was less an appreciation for the founding principles of the country than a celebration of American expansion, American power, and American greatness. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were well and, for the most part, good, but the “winning of the west” was much better. For TR, the historian, and TR, the historical actor, nation creating always took a back seat to nation building.

This is not to say that the latter task was without a conservative dimension. The same might also be said of Roosevelt’s emphasis on character building. Wary of the selfish “economic man” and his drive for personal wealth and a life of “vapid pleasure and ease,” Roosevelt repeatedly asserted the importance of character and duty. What never seems to have occurred to him was that a powerful progressive state might gradually weaken the very American character that he deemed so essential to American greatness.

Would TR today see decline or would he celebrate the modern administrative state? Of course, we’ll never know. What is clear to Yarbrough is that TR is the odd man out on Mount Rushmore. The gap between the American political tradition of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, on the one hand, and Theodore Roosevelt on the other is considerable. Indeed, that distance is significantly greater than that between Roosevelt and Obama.

Where does this leave the country—and the party of Lincoln and the first Roosevelt—today? Is the original American political tradition now nothing more than a distant memory? Or can it—and should it—be recovered and revived? Yarbrough answers the second question affirmatively in a book that has arrived just as proponents of the second American political tradition are once again claiming victory and vindication. What better time to look squarely at Theodore Roosevelt, even as we look back to the Lincoln who was always looking back to the founders. In the process we might then remember what both Presidents Roosevelt and Obama seem to have forgotten, namely, that the Lincoln who prosecuted our civil war did so to vindicate the founders, rather than transcend them.  

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota and performs a one-man show as Theodore Roosevelt.