Teddy Roosevelt 2.0

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, December 6, 2017. On this date in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt was uncharacteristically idle. He’d returned in late summer to the United States after a year on safari in Africa and touring the capitals of Europe, then embarked on an American speaking tour, and now was home at Sagamore Hill contemplating the next phase of his life.

Retirement? Or a return to the “arena” he famously loved?

“Mother and I had a three hours ride yesterday; in the evening we sat in the north room before the blazing log fire, while a snow storm outside gradually turned to a blizzard,” he wrote his son Ted as winter arrived that year. As Roosevelt biographer H.W. Brands noted, for once in TR’s very active life, inactivity seemed to suit the man. Roosevelt was musing about that, too. “Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I should not have been contented,” he added in that letter, “simply because I would have felt that I had not any business not to be doing work.”

But his nature was about to reassert itself. At the December 1910 American Historical Association convention in Indianapolis, Roosevelt would be tapped as the next president of that scholarly group. Meanwhile, political insurgents led by Hiram Johnson of California and Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette were plotting the formation of something they were calling the National Progressive Republican League. They, too, wanted Roosevelt on their team.

Theodore Roosevelt had taken an extended break from politics after leaving the White House in 1909, all but delivering the presidency to William Howard Taft. Even in the African bush, however, Roosevelt stewed over reports from America that were not to his liking. Taft had replaced TR’s Cabinet; Taft was indifferent to conservation; Taft was turning away from Republican progressivism; Taft was his own man.

So TR returned, ostensibly to campaign for Republicans in the 1910 midterm elections, but really to resume his place on the national stage. The backdrop of Theodore Roosevelt’s return to public life was Osawatomie, Kansas, and a park dedication to John Brown — yes, that John Brown — in memory of a pitched battle he fought there against pro-slavery agitators. It was delicate for Roosevelt. He had a bold message to proclaim (one made bolder because William Allen White and Gifford Pinchot drafted his speech), but he was making the address at a ceremony commemorating the activities of a true radical.

Roosevelt finessed that problem by mentioning Brown only twice in passing — in a 6,574-word speech — and by pulling his punches when discussing the sweeping themes at the heart of his talk: capitalism’s inequities, special interest influence in politics, and conservation.

For instance, when he discussed the environment, Roosevelt prefaced his remarks by saying, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” He said he recognized “the right and duty of this generation” to put natural resources to use, before adding, “But I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

Likewise, Roosevelt spoke out against mob violence — presumably labor union violence — against the rich. He quoted Abraham Lincoln in his discussion of labor and capital, observing somewhat defensively that if he, Roosevelt, had coined such phrases, “I should be even more strongly denounced as a communist agitator than I shall be anyhow.”

Roosevelt had a point. His Osawatomie address was labeled communistic and socialistic, even by liberals who had supported him in the past. That’s because his long speech truly was a call to social and political action. Teddy Roosevelt came out for child labor laws, sanitation standards, workman’s compensation, a livable wage, and workplace protections for women.

Much of what he envisioned is now the law, and some of it is owed to the speech at Osawatomie. This talk, before 30,000 full-throated Kansans, essentially launched Roosevelt’s 1912 third party presidential candidacy, a bid that divided Republicans and put Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House. The results of that three-way race heralded the arrival of a progressive consensus in the country, just as Theodore Roosevelt’s call in Osawatomie for a “square deal” foreshadowed his famous cousin’s New Deal.

On December 6, 1904, 113 years ago today, Roosevelt delivered his fourth State of the Union address. Its key provision was an expansion of the Monroe Doctrine. James Monroe had postulated in his 1823 message to Congress that European powers had no right to colonize Latin America or interfere with its people or governments. Roosevelt was going further, asserting the right of the United States to intervene, presumably militarily, in the Western Hemisphere to protect Latin American nations from European actions that might destabilize them.

Was this the Monroe Doctrine’s “Roosevelt corollary,” as it became known? Or was it, as later scholars concluded, really a concept that turned the Monroe Doctrine on its head? Either way, it led directly to any number of U.S. incursions into Latin America, armed interventions that our generation would call “preemptive war.”

The point of all this is that Theodore Roosevelt was a liberal, yes, but not entirely in a modern context. He was a Hamiltonian at heart — and deed. What TR believed in more than anything was the concentration of centralized federal power for use by an American nation he believed to be capable of — and obliged to undertake — heroic deeds, both at home and abroad.

In other words, Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t be any more comfortable in today’s Republican or Democratic parties than he was when he was alive.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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