The Ambiguous Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt

Patrick J. Garrity

April 1, 2002

Reading about Theodore Roosevelt is great fun. TR is one of the larger-than-life characters of American history: the Harvard-educated scholar who tracked down beasts and men in the Dakota Badlands; the soldier who charged up San Juan Hill and yet later won the Nobel Peace Prize; the politician who once took a month-long vacation determined to do absolutely nothing—except write a 60,000 word biography of Oliver Cromwell. Which he then proceeded to do.

The character of Theodore Roosevelt is the central theme of Edmund Morris’s long-awaited Theodore Rex (Random House, 2001, $35.00), the second volume of his biography of TR. The account begins abruptly in September 1901 when Vice President Roosevelt is notified of the impending death of the assassinated President McKinley. It ends with his departure from Washington in March 1909, shortly after reviewing the return of the Great White Fleet that he had dispatched around the world months earlier. The intervening years witnessed an administration of much accomplishment and controversy. Roosevelt set the standard for the Imperial Presidency of the 20th Century.

In fact, the book begins a little too abruptly. To know the TR of 1901, we need to know the TR of youth. This was the subject of Morris’s wonderful first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1980. We see there the emergence of a truly self-made man who overcame childhood illness and a weak constitution to become a vigorous and courageous leader. We also see a young man equally determined to revitalize and redefine the American character as a whole, a project undertaken through writings and correspondence, especially in partnership with his close friend, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Roosevelt the historian argued that the character of a nation, as well as that of an individual, was formed in struggle. TR was not a crude Social Darwinist or racist, but he did assume that the world was divided into competing racial and national groups—”cultures” —each of which possessed a greater or lesser degree of civilization. The English speaking peoples were at the pinnacle of the cultural hierarchy. But there was no guarantee of success: backsliding was possible for advanced nations and races, especially if they lost the martial virtues, because war was for Roosevelt the ultimate test of character. Without national progress, there would be national regress. Roosevelt’s heroes were statesmen such as Washington and Lincoln, who built and maintained the nation and expanded its power. The villains were those “small” Americans—for instance, Thomas Jefferson, demagogic Democrats like William Jennings Bryan, and businessmen who would have (in TR’s eyes) sacrificed the national honor for lesser things, such as slavery or personal popularity or money.

TR’s unexpected elevation to the presidency in 1901 took his project in character-building from the realm of scholarship and journalism into practical politics.

As Morris notes, Roosevelt believed that uncontrolled struggle was dangerous to progress, whether in national or international affairs. In world politics, President Roosevelt sought means of control through the establishment of a new balance of power. TR secured the American strategic position close to home by preventing European powers from establishing military bases or political and economic influence in the Caribbean basin. A secure southern flank meant that the United States could build and take full advantage of an Isthmian canal to be constructed through an independent Panama (a story carefully reconstructed by Morris). Roosevelt expanded and modernized the U.S. Navy, the big stick that would ensure European respect for the United States in future clashes of interest. He could then walk softly and play a key mediating role in crises such as the Franco-German dispute over North Africa and the Russo-Japanese war. Through these various means, TR sought to prevent the outbreak of a major war, check the threat of less advanced peoples—notably Russia’s—and accommodate the rise of promising but still immature and aggressive nations, notably Germany and Japan. Finally, Roosevelt sought a true Anglo-American entente by solving long-standing problems largely on U.S. terms: this would be a necessary sign of London’s respect for and understanding of America’s power and leadership.

On the domestic front, Roosevelt saw his great struggle for the American character as directed against the “malefactors of great wealth”—especially the trusts—and their political allies, who he thought loved money more than their country. The trusts must be disciplined and brought under control. Morris argues that Roosevelt did not see himself as a radical enemy of business or property. He believed that government must act to relieve pressures for revolutionary social change, that evolutionary reforms must be encouraged to invigorate existing institutions and create new ones. The eventual solution was the federal regulatory state, which began to emerge under TR, with he creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor; the Hepburn Bill, which extended the authority of the Interstate Commerce Act; the Employers’ Liability Act; the Pure Food and Drug Act; the Meat Inspection Laws; and so on.

In short, Morris’s Theodore Rex is an admirable character with many signal accomplishments. But Morris does not draw out fully the implications of Roosevelt’s understanding of the American regime.

For Roosevelt, character is ultimately about action—struggle—rather than reflection. (As Henry Adams famously remarked, TR possessed “that singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.”) Character for TR is what we do, not who we are. This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but it is a distinction with a difference. Roosevelt’s character is one that—at the extreme—prefers the exercise of will over the rule of law; administrative fiat over constitutional process; the theoretical possibilities of government over the practical limits of politics; and war over peace. Struggle itself becomes the standard, the end rather than the means of politics. In this world, there are no firm, trans-political truths outside of the “superior” culture to which one might appeal for moral guidance; or these standard themselves evolve in the course of the struggle.

To be sure, Roosevelt himself was a moral man. He was a gentleman, for all his occasional eccentricities. But we cannot rely simply on gentlemen. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. And even enlightened statesmen are tempted to dispense with inconveniences such as the Constitution and the rule of law under the pressure of events.

Where then can we seek the ballast for the American character? Roosevelt the writer did us the enormous favor of pointing to great characters, above all to Washington and Lincoln. But he unfortunately points us away from Jefferson, and more to the point, away from the positive and reflective Jeffersonian elements of the national character. Lincoln understood this fully: that the spirited defense of individual rights (and national security) within the framework of limited, constitutional government, must be a defense that ultimately points towards the higher, not the lower ends of mankind and political community.

Roosevelt did not grasp fully this essential element of the American regime. The full implications of this were not yet clear when Roosevelt departed from Washington in March 1909. But in the coming years, especially as he reentered politics in search of the presidency in 1912, his political moderation would succumb to the fires of his competitive nature and to the struggle against even more radical departures from the principles of the American Founding.

That will be the field of Morris’s final volume. For the moment, though, we should admire the good things of Theodore Roosevelt, admirably displayed in Theodore Rex. His patriotism and courage are an inspiration at a time when those virtues are needed, and are being displayed, by another generation of Americans. That is not a little thing.

Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.