The Corner

In Defense of TR

From a reader:

Jonah, This is from a PhD in American history and an unabashed fan of Teddy Roosevelt: Believe me, I understand the general exasperation with the glorification of all things progressive, but dismissing Roosevelt as just another progressive is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. First, it is plainly wrong and unfair to equate TR to Wilson as you do in that post. TR was not a Darwinian racist in the mold of Wilson, not even close. Wilson was an active racist who brought Jim Crow to the federal government. TR was ahead of society in every way when it came to issues of race, even though he came from an intellectual culture that had bought wholeheartedly into the idea of an evolutionary hierarchy of races. Everyone around him believed that genetics led to certain qualities in people, and TR often made statements to that effect, but it also readily apparent that for TR, a man’s actions, not his bloodlines, defined his worth. Even when he was predisposed to look down upon a group of people, he quickly let go of his prejudices when individuals proved themselves to be worthy(see his writings on the diverse soldiers in the Spanish-American War or Candice Millard’s book on TR in the Amazon for two of many examples of this). Individuals proving their worth through strenuous individual action–sounds pretty conservative to me. Second, and even more important, as far as the “I like big things” comment goes, it was TR’s was of saying he liked to focus on big issues. TR may have admired Bismarck’s Prussia in some ways, but he did not “adore” it. (For that matter, neither did Wilson, who saved his adoration for Brits like Gladstone.) The only country that TR adored was the United States of America. That adoration was far more important than just “patriotic bits.” His belief that the United States’ ideals represented the best in humankind defined his worldview. And it meant that on the most important issues–national security, the reason that states exist at all–he was in the right. The United States was a burgeoning great power, and it had the responsibility to act like it. More importantly, TR understood that for American foreign policy especially, economic and moral ideals were the same thing, they were ultimately to the benefit of everyone involved, and because of that Americans should not apologize for wanting the world to follow our example. Nor should we surrender our ideals and interests to international institutions like Wilson’s League of Nations. At an intellectual level there is no reason for TR’s foreign policy to be either liberal or conservative, and both liberals and conservatives have enacted parts of it over the last century–but I would think that most conservatives would be in favor of a vigorous foreign policy that follows our economic, strategic, and moral interests and does not hand over any real control to international institutions. As far as domestic policy goes we can certainly debate TR’s individual programs, but keep in mind that he lived in an era when rapid industrialization spawned all kinds of socialist movements and governments across the Western world. His policies were explicitly designed to control excesses and head off the radicalism of people like William Jennings Bryan and Samuel Gompers. In this, TR was largely successful–which we can call a massive victory for conservatism in America.

There is a pre-Goldwater conservative tradition in America, and Teddy Roosevelt is a big part of it. Ignoring that tradition seems like a rather odd thing for conservatives to do. Best, Tom

Me: There are some fair points here. Here are some quick thoughts in response, though I’d like to keep much of my powder dry until the book comes out. Still, I’d love to hear more defenses of TR (or criticisms) along these lines.

TR may have taken individuals as he found them (particularly if they were good soldiers, since TR shared with Oliver Wendell Holmes the belief that war was a source for morality), but when it came to groups he was more than a little influenced by the likes of EA Ross and the arguments for race-based eugenics.

As for Wilson, he wrote that Bismarck’s Prussia was the most “admirable system” in the world. Both men, but TR in particular, bought into Herbert Croly’s fondness for Prussia and the Prussian model. And both men surrounded themselves with intellectuals who were, to put it mildly, smitten by the Prussian Way.

When Tom says that TR’s policies were designed to head-off the excesses of Bryan et al, that’s a fair point. But his approach was, in my mind, distinctly Bismarckian in that the Iron Chancelllor used a similar rationale to impose his “top-down” socialism. “It’ll hold-off the radicals!” Philosophically, this is feeding the alligator one limb at a time.

I think Tom’s basically right that Roosevelt was a product of his time. But my fundamental problem with those who look to TR for inspiration — like the editors of Time, The Weekly Standard, John McCain et al — is that they seem to think we live in a similar time and therefore we need similar leaders. We don’t on both scores. Hence, even if you think TR was right about this or that — and I’m all in favor of an assertive foreign policy, by the way — it’s a terrible mistake to think we need another TR because the times don’t require one.

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