Richard M Abrams. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
The administration of Theodore Roosevelt was in some respects the first modern presidency. It is with Roosevelt that the most distinctive twentieth-century characteristics of the executive office emerged as more or less permanent traits. Roosevelt put the presidency and the federal government at the center of peacetime political action. He made the White House a national focus for the social mood and did much to set the moral tone of his times. He exploited the president’s powers as commander in chief to initiate a forceful, independent foreign policy, deploying military forces abroad without direct (or any) consultation with Congress. And he extended presidential initiatives in policymaking to the domestic scene on an unprecedented scale, putting forward reform proposals for congressional action and using executive orders to promote major innovative programs.
Not all the traits that Roosevelt brought to the White House were admirable. There was sometimes as much truculence as confidence, as much belligerence as goodwill, and as much bravado as good sense. He set some dubious precedents in his bullying of small nations and in his sometimes casual regard for constitutional and international law. He did much to prod Americans to take up their responsibilities as a powerful nation to use their power for good internationally, even though it must be said that his own conception of “good” could not always meet a test for universal approval. He was, in short, not the perfect model for the ideal Philosopher King. But his contributions to good government certainly outweighed his shortcomings.
That Roosevelt went a long way toward persuading the nation of the legitimacy of federal responsibility for regulating business activities and husbanding the country’s natural resources, unquestionably counts among his greatest contributions. By 1900, the corporate consolidation of the nation’s business had greatly impaired the effectiveness of the market to allocate economic opportunities, advantages, and rewards equitably. Meanwhile, the predominantly interstate and global character of economic activity had rendered state governments constitutionally and administratively incapable of overseeing the nation’s industrial and financial affairs so as to redress market imbalances. Nor had the states proved capable of controlling private exploitation of the public’s mineral, timber, water, soil, scenic, and recreational resources, much of which by 1900 were beginning their way toward extinction. A longtime governmental vacuum awaited federal attention, which, given the parochial roots of congressional power, only the president could provide. The rise of “The Regulatory State” that gained much of its legitimacy during Roosevelt’s presidency was as much an essential part of the modern political economy as was the emergence of the corporate form of business organization and the multinational business firm. Although in the final quarter of the century that began with the Age of Theodore Roosevelt a variety of economic interests came to use “deregulation” as an effective political slogan, in fact none of even those same interests truly envisioned a major withdrawal by the federal government of its regulatory role. Most of what went on in the politics of the 1880s and 1890s aimed chiefly at rearranging the structure of competitive costs and advantages that different business and other interests had constructed in previous decades. No one understood the vital importance of the modern regulatory state better than Theodore Roosevelt, and through all the political smoke of the 1890s it remained clear that his perceptions continued to serve modern government.
Meanwhile, the competition for empire among the leading industrial and military powers of Europe and Asia challenged the rationale of America’s traditional isolationism and forced heavy responsibilities on the country’s commander in chief. These developments greatly magnified the importance of the presidency and inevitably drew the attention of the press beyond state and local events to national politics. Later in the century, as film, radio, and television became public media instruments, the presence of the chief executive and his family would become more potent and more influential. But Theodore Roosevelt achieved such stature in advance of the new technology. It may be that Americans generally get the president who most closely mirrors their mood, but it is at least arguable that presidents shape the nation’s mood, its manners, its tastes, and its morals somewhat more than they have been shaped by them. This seems especially true of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Man and His Times
Roosevelt’s personality and political philosophy fitted the imperatives far more than they did the fashions of the times, so that the degree to which his behavior in the White House both hastened and shaped the dramatic growth of presidential power over the next seventy-five years must be seriously considered. Temperamentally, Roosevelt craved attention. It was said of him in jest that when he went to the theater, he envied the star; when he witnessed a wedding, he wished to be the bride; and when he attended a funeral, he resented the corpse. Once in the White House, especially in view of the changed national and international circumstances, he could not fail to focus national attention on the presidency.
Roosevelt believed in a strong “National Government” (his preferred term of reference to the federal administration), and he believed in the forceful use of presidential power. In this, he ran against the strong “Jeffersonian” current in nineteenth-century American politics, which treated power with suspicion, federal power with especial distrust, and presidential power as a threat to democratic impulses, which, it was long assumed, resided chiefly in the states and the legislatures. But Roosevelt moved strongly within other nineteenth-century currents that put power in a different perspective. The late Victorian era was, after all, the age of Darwinism, which featured an aggressive confidence in the triumph of the fit. Fit for the nineteenth-century American meant both physical and moral superiority, and moral superiority justified—indeed, mandated—vigorous uses of power. It was a major part of the very meaning of manliness, an idea of exceptional importance to contemporary males and to Roosevelt in particular.
Very much in the fashion of his times, Roosevelt viewed the world in terms of struggle between good and evil, between the righteous and the unjust, between civilization and barbarism. For the righteous to shrink from power would be to yield the arena to the unworthy. “I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power,” he wrote during his last year in office to the British historian George Otto Trevelyan (and obviously for the historical record). “I greatly enjoy the exercise of power,” he added. “While President, I have been President, emphatically; I have used every ounce of power there was in the office,” he told Trevelyan. “I do not believe that any President has ever had as thoroughly good a time as I have had, or has ever enjoyed himself as much.”
Roosevelt wrote these words by way of explaining why he had declined to run for another term in office. It was not, he made plain, that he felt burdened or disenchanted. It was rather that his view of the presidency required that there be a specific limit on how long any individual should serve. As president, he sought to use power up to, and beyond, the limits that ordinary law and a cautious interpretation of the Constitution set. He owed, he said, his primary obligation to the nation’s welfare. That was true of officers in other branches of government, but no other agency of government could act with the efficiency and dispatch that the executive office could; neither did they have so much responsibility. When emergencies arose or unique opportunities beckoned, the president should follow the “higher law” of duty if the secondary law of men or states interfered. It did not trouble him that a president might sometimes play the autocrat—all the best presidents had occasionally done so. It was only important that the people know that after four years they would have the opportunity to dismiss an incumbent and that after eight years they would be assured a new president.
There was both arrogance and innocence in this, traits that, as in so many things, made T. R., as he was called, an archetype of his generation. Only someone so sure as he was of his hold on truth and of his faithful dedication to the nation’s interests could be so casual in his regard for law and so certain of his calling to carry out a stewardship of the nation. That was the arrogance in the matter. The innocence consisted in the prevailing contemporary view that the difference between truth and error was plain for all godly and right-thinking persons to see, that virtue was a simple matter, and that honesty of purpose and heart was enough to rectify evil and to serve The Good Society. There was innocence, too, in the belief that no autocrat in the White House within four or eight years could do any permanent or substantial damage to the principles and practices of a free, orderly society ostensibly governed by the rule of law. The sufficiency of democratic, electoral institutions was taken for granted. This was, after all, a generation as yet untouched by the example of what modern technology combined with a populist absolutism could do in the service of the totalitarian state, a concept as yet unborn. It was, as even some contemporaries called it, an “age of confidence,” when faith often served as truth, or was mistaken for it, and when values remained as yet unattenuated by pluralistic doubt.
An unquestioning ignorance left Americans at the turn of the century free to assume with certitude the superiority of the “Caucasian race,” and, among that race, of Christians; among Christians, of Western civilization; and within that civilization, of the Protestant Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon “races.” It was a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant God that a majority of Americans acknowledged presiding over the universe in the year T. R. entered the White House. Such conceit—or so we would call it today—permitted those with power to assume that laws were to be applied rigidly for the vicious but could be stretched for the virtuous by the stewards of civic order. It permitted one set of principles to guide policy toward large and powerful nations and another toward smaller or underdeveloped countries; one set for whites, another for nonwhites; one set for the wellborn and well-off, and another for the less well endowed. Such parochial assumptions were in no way novel. They were rather characteristic of the village loyalty and outlook, the clannishness of ethnic and class groupings that has dominated most of human history.
Neither was it a matter of class outlook in Western culture. If Roosevelt could write of his conviction “that English rule in India and Egypt like the rule of the French in Algiers or of Russia in Turkestan means a great advance for humanity,” he was only affirming what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also had once contended. But whereas Marx and Engels saw European imperialism as serving benevolent historical forces “through the vilest of motives,” Roosevelt affected a posture of benign obligation; and whereas Marx and Engels saw Western bourgeois domination as a necessary uplifting stage preceding the ultimate uplift of working-class revolution, Roosevelt committed his life’s work to preventing just that eventuality. For Roosevelt, the nation-state was the finest product of social evolution, replacing the tribe and the clan; and it was to the nation that he insisted all class, ethnic, religious, economic, and provincial interests yield their loyalty.
By so insisting, Roosevelt raised a challenge to the prevailing ethos of the times. The country’s rapid industrialization since mid-century had suddenly enriched thousands of Americans who had come from modest and, in some cases, lower-class families. In fact, the wealth of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Hills, and Harrimans substantially dwarfed the family fortunes enjoyed by the country’s older, self-conscious “aristocracy,” such patrician families as the Adamses, Schuylers, Peabodys, and Roosevelts. And along with the wealth went power. Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a family and in a social set whose political influence had been displaced by the new men of great wealth, men who were guided by a business, rather than a social, ethic and who lacked a family tradition of public service, a sense of noblesse oblige. These men had “made it” through the squalor of industrial conflict to take command of the levers of government and manipulate them in the hard-bitten style of their own experiences. Above all, these men increasingly exemplified the country’s new standard of success, a standard built on the workaday values of industry and finance. The old patrician classes of the country could not compete with the men of new wealth on their own terms. By emphasizing nationalism, patriotism, and the virtues of manly and even martial strenuosity, Roosevelt put forward an alternative standard of success.
The Young T. R.
It had been one of Roosevelt’s early accomplishments that he had successfully challenged his social set’s condescending aloofness by entering the festering New York political scene, against all counsel, without losing his standing in society. “I intended,” he said, “to be one of the governing class”; and if the men who then dominated that class were indeed too vulgar and rough for him, then “I supposed I would have to quit, but I certainly would not quit until I had made the effort and found out whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble.” Of course, Roosevelt held his own. But more than that, he helped make politics an attractive career once more for well-educated, talented men and women of goodwill. He, as much as anyone in the country, was responsible for making reform respectable, removing from it the stigmas of radicalism on the one hand and of effeteness on the other. He rehabilitated the idea of the patrician in politics.
It is easy—perhaps too easy—to link Theodore Roosevelt’s political philosophy and his behavior in the White House to his childhood and his upbringing. There is a strong consistency in his attitude toward duty, character, and power that runs the extent of the sixty-one years he lived. He was born in Manhattan on 27 October 1858, the second child and the older of two sons in a family of four children. His southern-born mother, Martha Bulloch, could well have been a model for the stereotype of the ineffectual Victorian female. His father, Theodore, Sr., appeared (at least in his older son’s revering eyes) a paragon of civic and family virtue, a tall, strong, athletically built man of stern moral commitments, active in philanthropy and on the periphery of politics. His devoted son bore the burden of physical frailty and illness, a burden made doubly heavy by the inevitable comparisons he made to his father. Small-boned, soprano-voiced, nearsighted to the point of virtual blindness in one eye, and severely asthmatic, he wrote later as well as in his childhood diaries of the anguish he felt over his infirmities and of how he had had to depend on his younger brother, Elliott, to help deal with youthful belligerencies. Thoughts on strength and power must have been constant companions for him. In his book The Strenuous Life (1901), he would remark, “One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises.” As president in 1906, he wrote, “The chance for the settlement of disputes peacefully … depends mainly upon the possession by the nations that mean to do right of sufficient armed strength to make their purpose effective.”
When T. R. was about twelve, his father urged him to work on developing his physical strength. The boy put aside his nature books for the regimen of weights, chinning bar, horseback riding, boxing, wrestling, and hunting. It seems to have worked. Although his eyesight would continue to deteriorate, Roosevelt conquered his asthma and built a muscular body capable of the strenuosity he craved, perhaps as proof of his worthiness to be his father’s son. (“O, Father, Father how bitterly I miss you, mourn you and long for you!” he wrote when he was nineteen, weeks after his father’s death. “I realize more and more every day,” he added six months later, “that I am as much inferior to Father morally and mentally as physically.”) That was in 1877. Within the next quarter of a century, the energy he poured into sport, scholarship, politics, and actual physical combat must have left him with at least some measure of vindication.
By the time he became president, Roosevelt had in fact accomplishments enough to make him something of a national legend, a career and exploits that might have rivaled any small boy’s grandest daydreams. He had engaged in the “rough and tumble” of city and state politics. He had bought a ranch in the untamed Dakota Territory, ridden with cowpunchers, led a posse to capture three armed thieves, and come out the victor in a brief brawl with a (rather drunk) tough in a tavern. Farther west, he had hunted grizzlies and cougars in the Rockies and matched shooting skills with a group of “wild Indians.” In that same period, he had written eight or nine books, including two serviceable biographies (Thomas Hart Benton, 1887, and Gouverneur Morris, 1888), a major four-volume history of the West (The Winning of the West, 1889-1896), and The Naval War of 1812(1882), which for a time served as a textbook on the subject at Annapolis. He had served on the United States Civil Service Commission (1889-1895) under two presidents, on the New York City Board of Police Commissioners (1894-1896), and as assistant secretary of the navy (1897-1898). On the two commissions, he had managed to attract national attention because of his bold battles for nonpartisan administration of the law (while keeping his fences carefully mended within his party). In the third position, he had found himself in control of the United States Navy on 25 February 1898, ten days after the destruction of the battleship Maine in Cuba (Secretary of the Navy John D. Long had taken the day off), and had used that control with a characteristic disregard for lawful authority when the latter stood in the way of the national interest, as he viewed it. Acting with the brashness of a boy suddenly aware of power and heedless of instructions to the contrary, he ordered Commodore George Dewey’s Pacific fleet to Hong Kong to prepare (although the country was still at peace) for combat with the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, thereby setting the stage for the Battle of Manila Bay and American annexation of the large Asian archipelago.
With the declaration of war soon after, Roosevelt resigned his office, helped organize a voluntary cavalry unit made up of a few hundred Dakota and other cowboys, a good number of Ivy League football players, a few New York City policemen, and fifteen or so American Indians. Promptly dubbed “The Rough Riders” by the overexcited press, First Regiment of U.S. Volunteer Cavalry with Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt as battle commander saw brutal action in the hills overlooking Santiago, Cuba. In taking its assigned target, the regiment suffered extraordinary losses, possibly owing to brief training and its commander’s brash amateur leadership; but by some miracle Roosevelt survived, returned quickly to New York in time for the political season, and was elected governor of the country’s most populous state that same November, in no small measure on the strength of his wartime notoriety. Two years later, his nomination for the vice presidency was arranged by New York Republicans who had wearied of T. R.’s tempestuous independence and wished him up and away. Then, in September 1901, at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, Leon Czolgosz’ gun, hidden in his bandaged fist as he approached President McKinley to shake hands, put the Rough Rider in the White House.
In the White House
Although Roosevelt became president in a freakish way and was moreover, at not quite forty-three, the youngest man ever to hold the office, few United States presidents entered the White House who were as well qualified. John Quincy Adams had been at least as well read and had spent more time abroad in diplomatic activities before he, like his father, became president. But Roosevelt’s numerous publications showed him to be a man of respectable scholarly accomplishments (his The Winning of the West was reviewed seriously in the American Historical Review by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1896) and a serious thinker about major contemporary issues, notably military strategy. His western exploits and his brief military career had given experience that Adams conspicuously lacked, to Adams’ great disadvantage in his rivalry with Andrew Jackson. And Roosevelt had also traveled abroad frequently, both as a child and as an adult. He moved easily among the genteel and governing classes of England and Germany, and established there lifelong friendships sustained by a massive correspondence. When in 1886 he married Edith Carow, his second wife (his first, Alice Lee, had died in childbirth in 1884), it was in London, and Britain’s future ambassador to the United States, Cecil Spring Rice (“Springy,” to Roosevelt), served as his best man.
As John Morton Blum has astutely observed, Theodore Roosevelt spoke and wrote expansively on order, duty, justice, and power—but rarely on happiness, the word that stands at the center of liberal thought. Except for his commitment to a parliamentary and electoral politics, Roosevelt in fact showed few liberal characteristics. He spoke righteously for freedom but placed individual liberty in the context of a greater obligation to the nation. He acknowledged that most individuals probably preferred business as usual, to be left to cultivate their own gardens and to pursue modest livelihoods and comforts, but he viewed such an outlook with scorn. He found peace good but grandeur better. He vigorously defended the rights and privileges of private property, but he would have them subordinated to political priorities. Business competition in an unmanaged, open market, then the centerpiece of the liberal economic order, he regarded with skepticism, as wasteful, disorderly, and given to irrational outcomes. The rule of law, equally central to the legitimacy of power in a liberal state, Roosevelt regarded as an ideal that should be applied to customary matters and ordinary people; but power, he believed, was a better, more reliable guarantor of justice, progress, excellence, order, and nobility. Roosevelt as president strove to build an American national state that could serve as the focus of an orderly justice, but in that cause he himself evaded constitutional and legal constraints that were designed to guarantee orderly government.
In such characteristics lay the greatness, but also the danger, of Theodore Roosevelt. Greatness often requires a reaching beyond conventional limits, a recognition of the possibilities and opportunities that beckon beyond the horizons of ordinary law and custom. The America that Roosevelt contemplated at the turn of the century was about to enter seriously upon international happenings. The nation’s business, its size, its expansive history and spirit had thrust it abroad. Yet Americans typically remained ignorant of the implications of such developments, innocent of the country’s military and economic vulnerabilities. When, without consulting Congress, Roosevelt “took Panama,” sent the fleet around the world, and signed secret agreements with Japan, he filled a void not merely in the constitutional distribution of powers but in the vision of contemporary Americans and their mostly provincial political leaders.
Similarly, the revolution in industrial production, organization, and marketing since 1875 had swiftly made archaic a constitutional and legal system that continued to treat private economic power as if it were still exercised mostly by small proprietary farmers and businessmen who serviced local or state communities. The sudden rise to dominance of a few very large interstate corporations was rapidly turning the open price and market system into a managed continental economy that rewarded the big and the powerful to the gross disadvantage of the masses of smaller business people of the country. Meanwhile, unrestrained private exploitation of natural resources threatened to squander the means whereby future generations might enjoy the same opportunities as did contemporaries. Roosevelt saw both danger and injustice in what was happening and also that the courts and Congress appeared incapable of taking notice. When the president bypassed Congress, expanding the use of executive orders to put some public lands beyond the reach of private exploitation, and when he fought to establish independent administrative agencies in the executive branch to supplement the courts’ supervision of private economic behavior, he took the first small steps toward bringing the problems invoked by industrialization within the purview of a national policy. In all these things, in both domestic and foreign policies, Theodore Roosevelt showed remarkable vision, while he also set some precedents for the abuses of power by twentieth-century American presidents.
His private reaction to McKinley’s death reveals the raw side of the man. While McKinley lay dying, Roosevelt wrote to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge:
We should war with relentless efficiency not only against anarchists, but against all active and passive sympathizers with anarchists. Moreover, every scoundrel … who for whatever purposes appeals to evil human passion, has made himself accessory before the fact to every crime of this nature, and every soft fool who extends a maudlin sympathy to criminals has done likewise … Tolstoy and the feeble apostles of Tolstoy … who unite in petitions for the pardon of anarchists, have a heavy share in the burden of responsibility for crimes of this kind.
The “war” Roosevelt proposed here he meant in a moral sense; he never urged legislation that would in fact bring “soft fools” within the law’s definition of an “accessory.” But he did sign the Immigration Act of 1903, which permitted the deportation of “alien anarchists” and banned “anarchists” from entering the country or seeking citizenship. For the first time since the long-repudiated Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the United States applied a political test for immigration and citizenship. Most insidious, the act left it to local officials to define what kind of activities or speech made one an anarchist.
Roosevelt was not responsible for the act. A great surge of excess and violence followed in the wake of McKinley’s assassination, which fed longstanding fires of antiradicalism and nativism. But the new president did and said nothing to deter the nativists’ assaults upon civil liberties or to quell the lynch-law “justice” to which they gave expression. Although Roosevelt usually preferred a more orderly and legal form of justice, his own instincts sometimes drifted in other directions, as his behavior in the Brownsville incident suggests. In November 1906, Roosevelt summarily issued dishonorable discharges to more than 160 black soldiers because it had been alleged that members of their battalions rioted in the town of Brownsville, Texas, in August. In the melee, a bartender was killed and a policeman was wounded. No individual was ever indicted; no trial was ever held. But the punishment the president inflicted on the men was severe. Many of the men were close to retirement but were deprived of all benefits because of the dishonorable discharge. Several held the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. After a congressional outcry against the president’s challenge to the Anglo-American legal principles that an individual is innocent until proved guilty and that individual guilt cannot be inferred from membership in a group, Roosevelt compounded his offense, denying that Congress had any right to interfere. In a much publicized speech, he boasted, “The only reason I didn’t have them hung was because I could not find out which ones … did the shooting.” As William Harbaugh points out, it is unlikely that racial bias entered significantly into Roosevelt’s action in the case; there is no evidence that he would have treated white troops any differently. That may say something for Roosevelt’s racial views but not much for his regard for law.
In office, Roosevelt rarely vented such impulses to impolitic righteousness. As Blum has remarked:
In order to win office and to make government function, he taught himself to restrain any politically dangerous impulse, to study complex matters of policy before dealing with them, and to balance his objectives against the likelihood of achieving them—an exercise he often obscured by clothing the art of the possible in the rhetoric of the imperative.
Bringing Industrialism under Control
As in other matters, in his plan to place American industry under national supervision, Roosevelt proceeded cautiously. He well knew that government intervention in the private sector had profound roots in the American tradition and equally profound justification. But the tumultuous politics of the late nineteenth century had aroused a great fear of “mobocracy.” The Greenback, Granger, and Populist movements, with their demands that government redress a dangerous imbalance of power between “the trusts” and “the people,” had evoked a fierce counterattack not only against the particular regulatory and public-ownership measures proposed by the rural “radicals” but against the legitimacy of government intervention in the economy as a general principle. For decades, court and legislative actions had promoted and protected the growing industrial and transportation companies against foreign competition and against civil and criminal claims pursued by small business, farm, and labor interests. They had done so in the name of the public’s interest in rapid industrial growth. But when, especially after 1875, shifting political majorities in several states led to legislation designed to mitigate some of the more conspicuous costs of industrialization, the groups that had grown powerful in the sunlight of government favor now cried foul. The ferocity of the counterattack had the effect of defining the terms of the contemporary debate—that is, of confining the debate to whether the federal government should do anything about restraining the private uses of economic power or even about ascertaining the measure to which the private uses of power had come to confound a consensus on the national interest.
In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt gently suggested that the corporations were, after all, creatures of the state and could therefore be made to serve a public purpose. In his second address, in December 1902, Roosevelt spoke more strongly: “This country cannot afford to sit supine on the plea that under our peculiar system of government we are helpless in the presence of the new conditions. The power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce is an absolute and unqualified grant, and without limitations other than those prescribed by the Constitution.” There was, however, a major controversy over how one defined the legal reach of the phrase “interstate commerce” and over just what limitations the Constitution did place on government action. In 1895, for example, the Supreme Court had ruled that a sugar-processing corporation that controlled more than 80 percent of the processed sugar in the country, that purchased all its raw materials from outside the state in which it did its processing, and that sold its finished product across state and international boundaries was nevertheless primarily engaged in manufacturing within the confines of a state and was therefore beyond Congress’ reach under the commerce clause. In the face of such obtuseness, a conventional, strictly legal approach to policymaking could only be pathetic.
In fact, on the eve of the twentieth century, the judiciary dominated American policymaking on economic matters. This is not altogether surprising. The American nation rested on no consistent theory of the state. The main features of the Constitution had been shaped to minimize the state, to restrain and deter the exercise of power, essentially to prevent the state from acting arbitrarily or, for that matter, decisively. Through most of the nineteenth century, the state played a small and diminishing role in determining how individuals related to one another and to their society. That was given over largely to private bargaining, with the courts developing, through case law, elaborate doctrines on contracts, liability, trespass, and property. The general antistatist political environment in America meanwhile tended to neutralize both the legislative and executive branches in fixing social and economic priorities as the basis for resolving day-to-day conflicts of interest and ambition. It was the courts, responding to the multitude of mundane claims of right and privilege, that structured the law that gave definition to the “liberty” to which the nation avowed commitment. That is, the doctrines that the courts shaped defined what kinds of social and economic actions enjoyed freedom from sanctions, what kinds ran greater risks, what kinds of access to and use of property were protected against public, community, or second-party claims, and what terms of contracts the state would be prepared to enforce.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, after a quarter century of industrialization and corporate growth had impaired the marketplace and had turned the struggles for advantage among a multitude of small economic strivers into a massive conflict of groups and classes, the many legislatures of the country moved to intervene. Americans continued to favor economic growth, but the costs borne by traditional business and agriculture, and by insurgent nonbusiness interests as well, gave rise to a sometimes violent politics of protest. The violence reflected a widespread loss of faith in the market’s capacity for fairly and impersonally allocating the resources and rewards that the society had to offer. The intervention took many forms and included the creation of state railroad and public-utility regulatory commissions. The commissions were intermediary government agencies, part administrative and part legislative, designed to replace the flawed marketplace with a mechanism characterized by science and technical expertise. They were designed to become the new impersonal and just allocators of advantages. To these agencies, the state legislatures—and Congress, in creating the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887—delegated considerable discretionary power, in effect creating an alternative to the courts for a flexible, law-adjusting response to day-to-day conflicts in the economic order.
Unhappily, to this alternative the courts reacted as to a challenge. Employing a novel interpretation of the due process clause of the Constitution, contriving an exquisitely narrow construction of the commerce clause, and inventing innovative uses of equity proceedings, state and federal judges—and, most important, those on the United States Supreme Court—repeatedly overrode the declared intentions of the legislative branches of American government in antitrust matters, labor relations, employment policies, and the regulation of selected practices of private industry. The number of cases was not large, but the deterrent effect of judicial vetoes had long-lasting and far-reaching impact.
It was these circumstances that Roosevelt confronted when he took office. In addition to the courts, he faced a congressional coalition of Republicans who represented (sometimes rather directly) the new corporate consolidations of economic power that Roosevelt sought to control together with southern Democrats, whose political instincts rebelled fiercely against any enlargement of federal power. So the president moved cautiously. Although more impatient reformers came to doubt Roosevelt’s earnestness, although many likened his vigor to that of a rocking chair (“all motion and no progress”), and others charged him outright with “selling out to the interests,” the conservatives were so deeply entrenched that one might be as readily impressed by Roosevelt’s achievements as by how little was achieved.
Cooking Up the Square Deal
Roosevelt’s primary task was to gain popular support for federal restraint of private power and, in this sense, to establish the legitimacy of federal power. The president’s huge talent for publicity served him especially well in this. He chose his issues, and his enemies, carefully. The American business community was far from unified in its view of the tide of giant corporate mergers it had been witnessing since 1897. For many conservatives, the private enterprise system itself seemed at stake. When, in 1901, J. P. Morgan concluded the reorganization of the steel industry by buying out Carnegie and consolidating several other major steel producers into the new billion-dollar United States Steel Corporation, even the staunchly conservative Boston Herald was moved to remark, “If a limited financial group shall come to represent the capitalistic end of industry, the perils of socialism, even if brought about by some rude, because forcible, taking of the instruments of industry, may be looked upon by even intelligent people as possibly the lesser of two evils.” In 1902, Morgan, J. J. Hill, and some other titans of finance and the railroad industry followed up the awesome steel consolidation by forming the Northern Securities Company, a merger of the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads. Roosevelt seized the opportunity, instructing his attorney general to prosecute the company for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The issue and the timing were perfect. The country was newly sensitized to the trusts issue, and not even a pettifogging judiciary could deny that the railroad industry quintessentially concerned interstate commerce. By a 5-4 vote in 1904, the United States Supreme Court did indeed uphold the government’s prosecution. (The minority held out on the issue of whether the merger amounted to an illegal restraint of trade.) From this and from the president’s attacks on Standard Oil and the “meat trust,” long-standing industrial pariahs, T. R. earned his reputation as a trustbuster. Roosevelt himself viewed the Northern Securities prosecution as the most important achievement of his first administration. But this was not because he generally opposed the business consolidations of the day. It was rather because the president of the United States had successfully called down several of the country’s leading business tycoons—an achievement no president in several generations could boast of.
Roosevelt argued during his 1904 presidential campaign that the Northern Securities case was “one of the great achievements of my administration,” because “through it we emphasized … that the most powerful men in the country were held to accountability before the law.” It was a popularly held view. “If Roosevelt had never done anything else,” the publisher Joseph Pulitzer wrote to his editor Frank Cobb (a steady Roosevelt critic), “and if he had committed a hundred times more mistakes . . . he would be entitled to the greatest credit for the greatest service to the nation” for his prosecution of the Northern Securities Company. In his autobiography, Roosevelt told the story of how the great J. P. Morgan had come to him after news of the suit broke and in avuncular fashion suggested that the whole scandal could have been avoided if the president’s man (the attorney general) had met with Morgan’s man to arrange matters. It had become habit for the country’s business elite to view the federal government as merely a rival power, even as a lesser power that should consult with its betters before acting. T. R. implied that he had put Morgan in his proper place.
Roosevelt’s presidency did much to restore public confidence in the government’s ability to hold “the most powerful men in the country” accountable to the law, but there was still the question of what the law should be—or, perhaps more to the point, who should determine what the law should be. In this, Roosevelt was far more accommodating to the men of new corporate power than the bravado about his encounter with Morgan might suggest. In the first place, Roosevelt believed in free-market competition little more than did Morgan and his financier friends. The president acted against Northern Securities less from his concern about monopoly than from his concern about how the public might react to uncontrolled corporate arrogance. He frequently chided conservative critics that revolutionary upheaval was as likely to be inspired from “an attitude of arrogance on the part of the owners of property and of unwillingness to recognize their duty to the public” as by socialist or anarchist revolutionaries. It was more the manner than the substance of the Northern Securities merger that goaded him. Roosevelt himself had small regard for the successful antitrust suits of the McKinley administration, which aimed to break up major railroad traffic associations for fixing rates and routing among the members. “It is difficult to see,” he told Congress, quoting the ICC on the subject, “how our interstate railways could be operated … without concerted action of the kind afforded through these associations.” In his second administration, Roosevelt would urge Congress to amend the Sherman Act to permit cartel-like agreements within the railroad industry.
In 1903 public unhappiness with corporate arrogance permitted the president to push through Congress, against bitter conservative hostility, legislation establishing the Department of Commerce and Labor and, within it, the Bureau of Corporations. The bureau was authorized to investigate and publicize suspect corporate activities. Roosevelt acted from premises about the public’s right to know and about the government’s need to know in order to hold private economic power accountable. The emphasis on publicity proceeded also from a faith that a common sense of decency would force corporations to be good—not only to be honest but to avoid unscrupulous, even though strictly legal, practices. In other words, in large measure the policy arose from a conviction, not seriously tested by anyone at the time, that the country understood a common definition of such a concept as decency. In practice, of course, men like Roosevelt tended to assume the universality of their own definition.
In any case, Roosevelt had no intention of waging open warfare on big business. In the first place, the big corporations played too important a role in his vision of America’s place in international rivalry. Small businesses could scarcely compete successfully for international resources and markets with the European cartels and Japanese zaibatsu. But more than that, Roosevelt did not view government and business as adversaries. In the spirit of the “New Nationalism,” which he would develop more explicitly in his campaign to recapture the presidency in 1912, Roosevelt pictured the government as a coordinating agency for harmonizing the nation’s varied interests and as a referee for interpreting and declaring the rules of the game. In keeping with this view, Roosevelt was prepared to assure corporations of immunity from antitrust prosecutions if he or the appropriate government agencies could be satisfied that their activities were honestly conceived and would benefit the community. When he was not so convinced, he proceeded, with his usual flare for the dramatic, to “bust the trusts,” as when he attacked Standard Oil, the tobacco trust, the meat trust (with antitrust suits and with the Meat Inspection Act of 1906), and the Northern Securities Company.
But through the bureau, the president did enter into a series of gentlemen’s agreements with Morgan interests. Companies such as United States Steel and International Harvester (organized in 1903) agreed to open records to the bureau’s investigators, on the condition—which Roosevelt accepted—that the president would use such information only as backgrounding for his recommendations of policy to Congress and that nothing would be made public except with the consent of the corporations themselves. To make these arrangements, Roosevelt permitted Commerce and Justice department officials to confer with representatives of Morgan interests such as George W. Perkins, E. H. Gary, and Henry Clay Frick. The meetings gave the Morgan men a chance to debate the legality of their actions and to avoid prosecution by agreeing to correct any “technical” violations of the law in cases where they could not persuade the government otherwise. In spite of Roosevelt’s autobiographical boasting, then, Morgan’s men were meeting with the president’s men to arrange matters.
In 1907, Morgan’s men would meet with the president himself to arrange a steel merger that virtually handed the United States Steel Corporation nearly complete domination of the industry. The bankers’ panic that year occasioned the conference. Among the feared casualties of the panic was the Trust Company of America (TCA), a major New York City financial institution whose collapse might have deepened the crisis. As it happened, the principal owners of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCIC) owed the TCA a lot of money. Morgan men Frick and Gary went to the president with a proposition. If they could be assured that there would be no antitrust prosecutions, the Morgan people would buy out the TCIC, thereby allowing its owners to pay off their debt to the TCA and keep the TCA solvent. Roosevelt may or may not have known the degree to which United States Steel’s acquisition of the TCIC’s steel plants, as well as its resources of coal and iron in Alabama, would substantially reduce competition in the industry. But he did see the virtue of averting a prolonged economic collapse (especially since the financial community was already whining loudly about how the crisis was all the fault of Roosevelt’s “radical” attacks on the trusts). Roosevelt gave the green light to the merger. Whether he did so by explicitly approving Morgan’s proposal or merely by leaving the matter as a tacit understanding, Roosevelt vigorously defended his role in the merger when he testified about it in 1911—after the Taft administration sued United States Steel for violation of the antitrust laws.
Roosevelt did not have to be apologetic about the steel merger, because he had not concealed his skepticism about the antitrust laws. Addressing Congress in 1907, he argued that the Sherman Act “should be … so amended as to forbid only the kind of combination which does harm to the general public.” How should it be determined what kinds do harm? “Reasonable agreements between, or combinations of, corporations should be permitted provided they are submitted to and approved by some appropriate Government body.” Instead of corporations testing legal limits in the courts by acting and then awaiting retaliatory action from the government or by private litigants, the new order would require the large interstate corporations to consult first with federal agencies established to pass on the acceptability of proposed moves. In the United States Steel case, Morgan had consulted with the president.
More than most of his contemporaries, Roosevelt understood that the corporation revolution had erased the main features of the rationale underlying the American liberal credo on the private uses of property for profit. A big, publicly financed corporation was not a private enterprise; it did not endow an individual entrepreneur with the qualities of independence and self-reliance on which the democratic polity counted; its size negated the competitive rivalry on which the democratic polity and the market economy depended to sharpen efficiency and to prevent arbitrary uses of power; its bureaucratic structure even denied the protection against a permanent preemption of power that mere human mortality afforded in an economy of individual proprietary enterprise. Finally, its managers were employees no less than were factory and mine operatives; the modern business corporation had indeed transformed Americans from a nation of self-employed enterprisers into a nation of hired hands.
Roosevelt’s program called for establishment of a number of regulatory agencies modeled after, but with powers that considerably exceeded, those of the ICC and the Bureau of Corporations. His aim, as he later explained, was “to help legitimate business” by making the big corporations answerable to government regulation “as an incident to thoroughly and completely safeguarding the interests of the people as a whole.” Roosevelt held such views from the start of his first administration, but it was not until his second that he could feel free to express them publicly. Meanwhile, with the ample rope that they had appropriated, America’s corporate leaders prepared to hang themselves and open the way for increased federal intervention.
Their egregious effort to crush the anthracite coal miners in 1902 was a case in point. This was not merely a fight between miners and some coal operators. Seventy percent of the anthracite mines in the country were owned by six railroad companies—which themselves were controlled by financial interests associated with, or directed by, the houses of Morgan, Rockefeller, and closely associated financiers. Moreover, anthracite was the fuel on which millions of voters depended for heat in winter. McKinley’s political mentor, Mark Hanna, had averted a strike in 1900 by quietly warning the corporations that an anthracite shortage and high prices in the fall might give Willam Jennings Bryan the edge to defeat McKinley. But in 1902, the companies were ready for a strike, at least in part to crush the United Mine Workers (UMW).
Wages were not the chief issue. Corporate spokesmen refused to countenance the legitimation of collective bargaining, even though collective capital had characterized the industry for decades. Although the public in 1902 cannot be said to have accepted collective bargaining in any substantial sense, neither was it as yet willing to accept fully the legitimacy of corporate collectivism, especially when it controlled one of the necessities of life. When the strike erupted, the national press generally supported the miners. In May, the Springfield Republican expressed an increasingly widespread sentiment: “It would be difficult to conceive of a monopoly more perfectly established or operated than this monopoly which holds complete possession of a great store of nature most necessary to the life of the day. There is but one way to deal with [it] … public control or ownership.” George F. Baer, president of the Reading Railroad and spokesman for the mine. owners, gave point to their arrogance by declaring, in a private letter that was revealed to the press, that God had given the care of the country to the propertied people to protect against labor agitators and their like.
President Roosevelt meanwhile squirmed frantically. On the one hand, he yearned for the power to take control of the industry in the public interest. The mineowners, he wrote to Murray Crane, conservative governor of Massachusetts, “were backed by a great number of businessmen whose views were limited by the narrow business horizon, and who knew nothing either of the great principles of government or of the feelings of the great mass of our people.” The “gross blindness” of the corporations, he complained to a Morgan partner, was “putting a heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder.” To Lodge, he fretted, “That it would be a good thing to have national control, or at least supervision, over these big coal corporations, I am sure; but that would simply have to come as an incident of the general movement to exercise control of such corporations.” Understanding that nothing of the sort would come from Senator Nelson Aldrich’s and Speaker Joe Cannon’s Congress for some time, perhaps generations, Roosevelt shied from even a verbal intervention. Conservatives such as Hanna and Crane took the lead, the latter even urging the president to meet jointly with the operators and the miners. The two party leaders, like Roosevelt, feared what a coal famine might do to Republican prospects that November.
With such encouragement, Roosevelt did force a joint conference. But it failed. For ten hours on 3 October, the president absorbed a barrage of vituperation from the mineowners, led by Baer. John Mitchell, president of the UMW, denied that recognition of the union was an issue in the strike, probably sensing that this was not a matter on which he could expect the public’s or the president’s support. The operators responded by showing (in Roosevelt’s words) “extraordinary stupidity and bad temper,” berating Mitchell and accusing the president of encouraging anarchy by suggesting that union leaders should have standing in a dispute between workers and their employers. They would not, they said, “deal with a set of outlaws.”
As winter and the congressional elections approached, Roosevelt, enjoying public support, finally decided to act. Characteristically, he planned to act dramatically and not necessarily within the bounds of his acknowledged constitutional power. He would seize the coal mines. “The position of the operators,” he later wrote to Crane, “that the public had no rights in the case, was not tenable for a moment.” (Actually, Roosevelt himself had earlier accepted his attorney general’s advice that the president did not properly have “any concern with the affair” and could not intervene.) Rumors were flying that trade unions across the country were considering joining the miners in a sympathy strike; that, Roosevelt told Crane, would mean “a crisis only less serious than the civil war.” Roosevelt then explained to his conservative New England adviser the obligation he felt to the higher imperatives of government, which moved him beyond the apparent limits of the letter of the law:
I did not intend to sit supinely when such a state of things was impending … I had to take charge of the matter, as President, on behalf of the Federal Government … I knew that this action would form an evil precedent, and that it was one which I should take most reluctantly, but … it would have been imperative to act, precedent or no precedent—and I was in readiness.
Actually, a sudden stirring among “the most powerful men in the country” headed off the crisis. Roosevelt may have been bluffing; we cannot know. But he was too much of a puzzle for his conservative and well-connected advisers to want to test him. Elihu Root, Roosevelt’s secretary of war, went to Morgan “as a private citizen,” found him irritated with the way Baer and his crew had “botched things,” and got him to twist some arms to force the operators to accept arbitration. A coal commission was agreed upon, but not before the operators won on their refusal to accept a labor man on the board. Later, citing the operators’ petty obstructionism, Roosevelt chortled in derision that he overcame their objections to a labor man by filling the position designated for a “sociologist” on the commission with the individual whom the UMW had nominated. But the joke was on Roosevelt: the companies won in their insistence that unions per se had no legitimate place in employer-employee negotiations.
The anthracite coal strike is worth detailing because it illustrates several important points about Roosevelt as president. First, T. R. was most comfortable with crisis management, partly (it is at least reasonable to surmise) because crisis laid a gloss on his affinity for direct action beyond the fine points of legal limitation. He was, moreover, not averse to some hyperbole in depicting the troubles (although one must never underestimate the fear of revolution generated among the comfortable classes by contemporary agitation). At the same time, Roosevelt did not accept the view of labor and capital as adversaries. Although he tended to favor collective bargaining, he envisioned unionism as a way of institutionalizing the wage-earner interest vis-à-vis that of the corporate employers, between which interests the government could mediate on a basis of a public interest that was defined by the president and transcended the particular interests of the unions and the corporations. Finally, although Roosevelt did indeed possess a long-term vision of reform, he was above all a practical party man. He rarely challenged the commitments of the party leaders on fundamentals, and consequently much of what he accomplished had more symbolic than substantive value and did more to accommodate prevailing threats to the social order than it did to challenge that order itself.
The symbolism, of course, was not unimportant. Every change in the symbols by which we live fore-shadows substantive change. Roosevelt’s mediating role in the anthracite strike altered no symbols for employer-employee relations, but there was symbolic force in the federal government intervening in industrial strife without special regard for the longstanding conventions of employer prerogatives. To paraphrase George E. Mowry, American business valued few things more highly than the right to keep its records in secrecy and the right to deal with employees without interference from government. Before the end of his first administration, Roosevelt had challenged both those assumed rights.
The Ripening of the Square Deal
Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in his own right in 1904 freed him from many of the inhibitions he felt during his first administration. His popularity was so apparent that the Democrats had trouble finding a candidate to oppose him. Willam Jennings Bryan, the eloquent progressive who had lost twice to McKinley, had no appetite for a third try, this time against a Republican with strong progressive credentials of his own; he threw his support to the then-radical publisher, William Randolph Hearst, but the party was not prepared to accept the father of yellow journalism as its leader. The Democrats nominated instead a virtually unknown party loyalist, Judge Alton B. Parker of the New York State Supreme Court, who promptly alienated the mass of Bryan Democrats on the night of his nomination with a call for affirmation of the gold standard. Against such political clumsiness, T. R. faced no trouble. Nevertheless, unpersuaded of his own already preponderant strength, Roosevelt risked compromising his progressive standing by making quiet overtures to conservative party, corporate, and financial leaders. The corporate community, antireform though it was, knew more surely than did Roosevelt that Parker was a loser; it put on a happy face, contributed handsomely to T. R.’s campaign when asked, and left Parker to a quiet campaign on his own back porch. On 8 November 1904, Roosevelt swept the country with 336 electoral votes to Parker’s 140, and 7.6 million popular votes to Parker’s 5.1 million, the most lopsided popular margin of victory since national records had been kept. Roosevelt said he was delightfully “stunned” by the victory.
The year 1906 would be a landmark for progressive legislation, with the passage of the Meat Inspection, Pure Food and Drug, and Hepburn Railroad acts. These measures underlined the federal government’s permanent entry as a regulator of the economic life of the nation. Each vested in a federal agency the power to investigate and to fix some of the conditions under which goods could be transported and sold across state lines. In the case of the Hepburn Act, Roosevelt won for the ICC limited rate-making powers, a form of price control that was unprecedented for the federal government.
The measures moved the American polity significantly toward the modern regulatory state, but it is important to understand that all three had powerful support from business groups. Many meat-packers resented the bad name the industry had earned at home and abroad because of the shipment of tainted meats by unscrupulous or simply negligent packaging companies. Similarly, adulteration and misrepresentation of packaged foods and pharmaceuticals hurt more scrupulous businesses, especially those trying to crack foreign markets. Finally, the seemingly arbitrary rate-making practices of the railroad industry had aroused the ire of shippers as well as farmers across the country. Aside from those particular businesses that feared immediate damage to their profits, opposition came from those who worried about where the move to increased federal power might someday lead and from others who saw a threat to orderly government in the arming of administrative agencies with broad discretionary powers of investigation and enforcement. Against these latter arguments, Roosevelt established the point that effective and therefore more orderly government depended precisely on the “continuous disinterested administration” of independent regulatory commissions.
The most enduring triumph of Roosevelt’s administration lay in his program for the regulation of the country’s natural resources. At the time he became president, private interests were in the process of laying waste to the country’s remaining riches, as they had already done to the timber, soil, and water resources of the older settled regions of the continent. During the McKinley administration, millions of acres of public lands had been allowed to slip into the control of private interests without provision for government supervision or restraints on destructive use. Mineral rights had been sold off at prices far below market value. Virtually nothing had been done to safeguard recreational sites or to require replenishment of renewable resources. The movement for conservation (not yet dubbed with that name) had so far been confined to a number of engineers, agronomists, scientists, and public servants—an educated elite that foresaw clearly the ultimate exhaustion of vital assets on which the country had long counted for its economic growth. By winning Roosevelt as an ally, as they did even before he entered the White House, they gained a leader with an incomparable talent for combining the scientific imperatives of modern resource management with an appeal to the moral imperatives of a democratic civilization. It was the latter, of course, that would turn an elite interest into a broad popular cause.
The main lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation program were developed by Gifford Pinchot and Frederick H. Newell, easterners with a mission to prevent the continued destruction that uncontrolled private “development” had inflicted on the eastern third of the country, in concert with westerners of similar concerns such as George H. Maxwell of California and Congressman Francis Newlands of Nevada. They called for multiple-purpose projects for development of water and land resources; public-land leasing contracts that required controlled grazing of grasslands and selective cutting and replanting of timber; a land-use fee system that could make public management self-supporting; and the preservation of scenic lands for recreation and the protection of wildlife.
Legislation achieved some of the movement’s objectives, but the core of the program depended on the president’s use of executive orders and other administrative prerogatives. The Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 designated revenues from public-land sales to the construction of irrigation projects for the conversion into arable land of the vast arid regions of the American West. During Roosevelt’s administration alone, more than thirty such projects, including the Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, were begun. The Newlands Act has been responsible for subsidizing the creation and maintenance of some of the country’s most valuable agricultural land today. It is a worthy monument to the Roosevelt administration, although it is flawed by eighty-five years of uncontrolled violations of the act’s provision that purported to limit reclaimed and irrigated land to 640 acres per owner.
Congressional legislation in 1905 also set up the Forest Service with broad powers to manage the country’s forest reserves, including the water resources within them, and the power to make arrests for violations of its regulations. Roosevelt named Pinchot chief forester, and Pinchot promptly launched a veritable revolution. He used his authority to withdraw from use thousands of acres of land, not only in order to prevent unruly exploitation of timber stands but to keep the fast-growing electric utility companies from preempting valuable waterpower sites before an orderly program could be established.
In the conservation struggle, Roosevelt and his allies made much use of moral rhetoric, frequently appealing to Americans’ antimonopoly sentiments and turning the cause into one of “the interests” versus “the people.” There is little doubt that the national conservation program disrupted established lines of power between the special interests and state legislative and congressional blocs. Moreover, the entire constellation of issues that was embodied in the conservation movement clashed directly with principles of the business ethic: here was an area where, more clearly than in most, private profit appeared to contradict the social ethic, the public’s long-term interest in protection of the national endowment. Yet it is inaccurate to treat the issue in “monopoly” and “antitrust” terms. Roosevelt himself came to acknowledge that he could count more often on the big corporations than he could on smaller and upwardly scrambling business groups for support of his regional programs. The most intractable problem lay in overcoming the parochial interests of state politicians and the shortsighted interests of local businessmen on the make. The big interstate corporations had long-term stakes in efficient resource management almost as much as the general public did. They could be more easily (though not very easily) converted to multiple-purpose uses of forest and water resources than could smaller, single-purpose business firms. And some of them would even enjoy some market advantages in the withdrawal of lands from the entry of potential competitors.
Roosevelt always played the political game with skill. Antimonopoly rhetoric evoked the clearest public response, so he used it. On the other hand, he knew that the more powerful potential antagonist was a public that might come to view conservation as a threat to its ambitions for economic development. Consider his support for San Francisco’s plan to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a natural wonder often compared to the Yosemite Valley, for a reservoir to serve the city’s growing water needs. He wrote to the outraged naturalist John Muir:
I will do everything in my power to protect not only the Yosemite, which we have already protected, but other similar great natural beauties of this country; but you must remember that it is put of the question permanently to protect them unless we have a certain degree of friendliness toward them on the part of the people of the State … and if they are used so as to interfere with the permanent material development of the State … the result will be bad.
Roosevelt asked Muir not to put him “in the disagreeable position of seeming to interfere with the development of the State for the sake of keeping a valley … under national control.”
Stretching Presidential Power
Immediately on his election in 1904, Roosevelt committed what most of his advisers and later historians considered his greatest political blunder: he announced then that he would not under any circumstances be a candidate for reelection to a third term in 1908. Certainly the move made him something of a lame duck at the outset of his only full administration. Yet, instead of limiting him, it is possible that lame-duck status served Roosevelt’s purposes well. He may have felt in fact that it freed him morally to move to the far side of constitutional law whenever his view of the national interest required it. That, at least, would be consistent with the man’s unwillingness to be controlled by anything less than his own moral commitment to serving the public interest as steward of the nation.
Temporal checks on power are not, of course, the equivalent of faithfully regarded constitutional checks. A lot of damage can be done in only a short time by government administrators—regulatory commissioners as well as presidents—when they exercise power that is restrained by their own sense of justice alone. Blum has written, “It did not require eight years or even four for a president to lead the nation beyond the edge of war, or to employ his ‘bully pulpit’ to lie to the people, or to employ his authority to subvert the rights of individuals.” Roosevelt in fact did none of these things, Blum notes, but he wonders if Roosevelt would have been so restrained if he had confronted global war and massive economic collapse, as some future presidents had to.
On the other hand, although Roosevelt was quite capable of magnifying a sense of crisis as occasion demanded, his presidency did not in fact confront great national or international troubles that might have tested his restraint. More than that, sensitivity to the abuse of presidential power stems from many decades of strong presidential leadership that by the 1970s eventuated in what came to be called—aptly enough—the Imperial Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt’s generation faced the opposite problem—decades of weak leadership in which images of governmental usurpation were served up regularly by special interests trying to preserve their immunity from public control and accountability. Moreover, not even the severest critics of modern government (the lunatic fringe aside) would be comfortable now with the relatively small power that resided in the presidency even at the conclusion of T. R.’s reign. As Richard E. Neustadt noted in his landmark book Presidential Power, “A striking feature of our recent past has been the transformation into routine practice of the actions we once treated as exceptional … The exceptional behavior of our earlier ‘strong’ Presidents has now been set by statute as a regular requirement.” That Roosevelt acted to the degree that he did in advance of such statutory requirements says more for his intelligence than for his recklessness.
In the area of foreign policy, however, there is room for serious questioning. To cite Blum once more, Roosevelt’s “belief in power and his corollary impatience with any higher law presumed that governors … possessed astonishing wisdom, virtue and self-control. As much as anything he did, his direction of foreign policy made that presumption dubious.”
The key to Roosevelt’s foreign policy lay in his division of the world into “civilized” and “barbarous” countries. “Peace cannot be had,” he insisted, “until the civilized nations have expanded in some shape over the barbarous nations.” Among the civilized nations, his diplomacy sought a balance of power. For the barbarian countries, he was ready to acknowledge an assignment of stewardships among the civilized nations. Russia belonged in Turkestan, Britain in India and Egypt, France in Algiers, and so on.
That there were racial implications in his portrait of global statuses cannot be denied, but that they were “racist” in the modern sense cannot be sustained. Roosevelt’s estimate of nations and peoples was, as with so many things, conditioned by considerations of power. When Roosevelt expressed condescension or scorn for nonwhite peoples, his attitude originated in the evident weaknesses of the nations where they predominated; he reacted to the weakness, not to the race. Moreover, he never appears to have begrudged respect to individuals whose personal traits diverged from the stereotypes attributed to the ethnic or racial groups with which they were identified. “I suppose we have all outgrown the belief that language and race have anything to do with one another.” The same thing is true, he suggested, regarding character. “A good man is a good man and a bad man a bad man wherever they are found.”
His view of the Japanese should make this clear. Japans’ economic and military power won from Roosevelt ungrudging respect for the Japanese people. “I am not much affected by the statement that the Japanese are of an utterly different race from ourselves,” he wrote to a British friend during the Russo-Japanese War. To the Japanese, in fact, Roosevelt assigned responsibility for civilizing and policing East Asia, or at least that part which “surrounds the Yellow Sea, just as the United States has a paramount interest in what surrounds the Caribbean.” He wrote to his German friend Speck von Sternberg in 1900, “I should like to see Japan have Korea. She will be a check upon Russia, and she deserves it for what she has done.” In 1904 he let it be known to both the British and the Germans that Japan ought to have Korea, as well as a role in bringing China “forward along the road which Japan trod” toward membership among the great civilized powers.
With Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, Roosevelt moved quickly to reestablish a balance of power in the Far East. Partly for his role in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, peace conference that concluded the war, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. But Roosevelt never courted “the odium of being a professional peacemaker.” He was concerned rather with assuring that Japan’s new ascendancy would not go unchecked. To this end, and without consulting Congress or informing the American people, Roosevelt informally committed the United States to the Anglo-Japanese alliance and recognized Japan’s hegemony in Korea and its “paramount interest” in Manchuria, in exchange for a Japanese pledge to honor United States sovereignty in the Philippines. It was not until 1925, as the result of historian Tyler Dennett’s research, that the American people first learned of the “Taft-Katsura Agreement” and Roosevelt’s secret arrangements.
Roosevelt was aware that the agreement provided for the direct violation of a multipower treaty guaranteeing Korea’s independence. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 in defiance of similar international guarantees of that country’s neutrality, Roosevelt’s public indignation was challenged on the grounds of his earlier acquiescence (indeed, collaboration) in Korea’s violation. Roosevelt was infuriated by the analogy. “Any obligation by outside powers,” he protested, “is of course dependent upon the power concerned itself standing for its own rights … If it shows itself impotent … it is of course impossible to expect other powers to aid it.” He wrote on another occasion:
To be sure by treaty it was solemnly covenanted that Korea should remain independent. But … the treaty rested on the false assumption that Korea could govern herself well … Japan could not afford to see Korea in the hands of a great foreign power … Therefore, when Japan thought the right time had come, it calmly tore up the treaty and took Korea.
It was, he said, a procedure “like that done under similar circumstances by the chief colonial administrators of the United States, England, France, and Germany.” With such chilling candor about tearing up “solemnly covenanted” treaties, Roosevelt made clear his view that power established its own legitimacy and that those without power need expect no law to be honored in their favor.
Roosevelt’s policies in the Caribbean of course fitted that view perfectly. The establishment of a protectorate in Cuba, the “taking of Panama,” and the declaration of what came to be called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine all were founded on the assumption that “great powers” have the moral right to “spank” small countries (as Roosevelt put it) whose squabbling or inadequacies imperiled the security or merely the tranquillity of their more civilized neighbors.
The Cuban case in some respects impels a musing that “considering the opportunities” one must wonder at the restraint. The United States had gone to war with Spain in 1898 at least partly to pacify the troubled nearby island of Cuba. To underline its “missionary” objectives, it had declared in advance its commitment to Cuba’s independence. Yet independence scarcely would guarantee no further disorders, nor would it prevent other powers from exploiting new disorders to replace Spain on the island. In belated recognition that the whole enterprise lacked logic if the United States simply withdrew without some way of exercising control over what happened to Cuba, the Roosevelt administration drafted, and the Senate ratified, a treaty that recognized Cuba’s independence but that included a proviso. Called the Platt Amendment, it forbade Cuba from making any treaties or financial commitments with foreign governments that might compromise its independence, permitted United States oversight of Cuban finances, and authorized the United States to quell any internal disorders that might make Cuba prey to foreign intervention.
Although the reasoning by which Roosevelt justified Japan’s annexation of Korea could have been applied to Cuba (to be sure, the United States faced no power so close as Russia was to Japan), the United States minimized its involvement with the Cubans. Cuba did become a protectorate whose internal disorders provoked one three-year military presence beginning in 1906 and several other actions in succeeding decades. But Roosevelt’s preferred method of stabilizing the island was to improve its economy. To this end, he persuaded Congress, over ferocious opposition from domestic sugar growers and Republican protectionist ideologues, to give Cuban sugar, the island’s biggest economic asset, preferred import status into the United States market.
The Panama episode had its immediate cause, as is legend, in the ocean-to-ocean dash of the USS Oregon around Cape Horn in 1898 to join the U.S. squadron off Cuba before the Spanish-American War ended. The epic argued the necessity for a canal across the Central American isthmus. (Californians and other westerners had also clamored for a canal to reduce their dependence on the monopoly power of transcontinental railroad companies.) Original plans for such a canal through Nicaragua blew up with the eruption of a volcano near the proposed site. There remained an abandoned project through Panama begun by a French company that still held a valid charter. Panama at the time was an unruly province of Colombia that had virtually defied governing for eighty years. The trouble lay, as Walter LaFeber writes, in “the type of person the Isthmus attracted—the rootless, lawless transient who obeyed no authority … ‘a community [according to one contemporary observer] of gamblers, jockeys, boxers, and cockfighters.’ “ During the course of the nineteenth century, Colombia had to cope with more than fifty insurgencies aimed at secession. At least four times, Colombia called on the United States, with which it had arranged treaty obligations in 1846, to assist in repressing rebellions.
The only asset of the province was that it lay in the way of seagoing traffic between the east and west coasts of North and South America. For this, as the Americans contemplated a canal, Colombia prepared to exact its price. Colombia initiated the negotiations in 1900. In January 1903, Roosevelt offered Colombia $10 million plus $250,000 per year for a ninety-nine-year lease on a six-mile-wide canal zone. In addition, $40 million was approved by Congress to pay off the Panama Canal Company (PCC), which held the rights to the route. The Hay-Herran treaty embodying the terms was ratified by the United States Senate, but in August the Colombian Senate unanimously turned it down. They wanted more money, including (they later specified) $15 million of the $40 million earmarked for the PCC. Roosevelt exploded, using a variety of tame expletives to describe the Colombian legislators—”inefficient bandits,” “a corrupt pithecoid community,” “homicidal corruptionists,” and so on.
What lay at the heart of Roosevelt’s exasperation was the conflict between a political ethic and a social ethic to which he was equally and profoundly committed. The social ethic dictated that reward should go to work and ingenuity. It was the work and ingenuity of others needing to cross the isthmus that gave value to the Colombian property and, indeed, provided livelihoods for the “community of gamblers, jockeys, boxers, and cockfighters” that prevailed there. On the other hand, the political ethic that informed Roosevelt’s leadership dictated a strong regard for property rights and national sovereignty. A more conservative nationalist would have yielded the point to Colombia on the principle of sovereign prerogatives. But Roosevelt could not leave it at that. Progress in civilization demanded that legal “technicalities” give way to the more fundamental moral imperatives—at least when the former were unsupported by adequate power.
Meanwhile, suggestions flew from within and without the administration that perhaps the United States ought to encourage, rather than to help Colombia repress, the next Panama rebellion. But as late as October 1903, Roosevelt wrote privately that though he would delight in Panamanian independence, “I cast aside the proposition made at this time to foment the secession of Panama. Whatever other governments do, the United States cannot go into securing [the canal] by such underhand means.” He preferred the more direct approach: he drafted a message for Congress asking authority to seize the isthmus. The draft was never completed. Taking the many cues that had been given, the Panamanians revolted. Without Congress’ authority, and in spite of United States treaty obligations to Colombia, the president then dispatched the USS Nashville with covert instructions to block Colombian military efforts to suppress the new insurgency. With success of the rebellion assured, Roosevelt then negotiated the terms of United States recognition of Panamanian independence, not with any bona fide representative of the Panamanian government but with Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French operator who was acting both as political broker and agent for PCC investors. Presented with a fait accompli, the Panamanians accepted the treaty in anguish, having yielded more of their sovereignty and territory than had been included in the pact offered Colombia.
For public purposes, and in deference to the prevailing political ethic, Roosevelt loudly denied any United States complicity in the rebellion. Privately he wrote, “The United States is certainly justified in morals, and therefore … in law … in interfering summarily in Panama and saying that the canal is to be built and that they [the Colombians] must not stop it.” But his attorney general, Philander Knox, is supposed to have said to him, “Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality!” Years later, in his autobiography, Roosevelt boasted, “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”
Having acquired the canal in order to alleviate one kind of strategic problem, Roosevelt acquired for his country new strategic burdens. Outposts beyond the continental borders require protection. Insofar as the canal would become a vital part of the American strategic periphery, the possibility of encroachment in the area by any of the world’s powers had to be viewed with concern. The most likely threat came from European powers moving in on Caribbean countries that got into financial trouble with their European creditors. Shortly before becoming president, Roosevelt had written to his German friend Sternberg, “If any South American State misbehaves towards any European country, let the European country spank it.” As president in 1904, when the Dominican Republic failed to make its debt payment because of local disorders and several European countries prepared to dispatch warships, Roosevelt stayed cool. “If I possibly can, I want to do nothing,” he wrote. But then an international court of arbitration adjudicating the claims of European creditors against Venezuela ruled disproportionate awards to those bondholders whose government (Germany) had sent warships to bombard the Venezuelan coast. Roosevelt finally understood that unless the United States stepped in the Caribbean would teem with European navies. “We must ourselves undertake … [to see to it that] a just obligation shall be paid,” he told Congress. It was, he pointed out, ultimately a matter of national security. In 1907, when disorders again threatened payments on the Dominican Republic’s foreign debts, Roosevelt, acting on his authority as commander in chief, took over the Santo Domingo customhouse. And so the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine became the foundation for repeated United States intervention in the governing of countries in, or bordering on, the Caribbean. It remains in place today.
The T. R. Administration in Retrospect
As his presidency neared its end, Roosevelt seemed to grow proudest of the things he had done to make the United States into a major military power. In a letter dated 28 December 1908 to a journalist acquaintance who was planning an article on his administration, T. R. cited first of all his “doubling” of the size of the navy. Possibly that was because at that moment, the Great White Fleet was on its trip around the world advertising America’s big stick while signaling (with the white paint and the exposure of the American coasts) the country’s pacific intentions. Roosevelt also stressed his actions in the coal strike; his steps “toward exercising proper national supervision and control over the great corporations”; his massive increase in the country’s forest reserves; the Reclamation Act, which he believed was matched only by the Homestead Act of 1862 in the development of America’s farm economy; and “the great movement for the conservation of our national resources.” But second on his list was the Panama Canal, about which he wrote: “I do not think any feat of quite such far-reaching importance has been to the credit of our country in recent years, and this I can say absolutely was my own work, and could not have been accomplished save by me or by some man of my temperament.” To this he added his pride in the reorganization of the War Department, in the inauguration of regular army and navy maneuvers, and the military interventions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which he believed would leave both countries with better prospects for “a stable and orderly independence” than they had ever enjoyed before. He noted furthermore how many of these deeds were “done by me without the assistance of Congress.”
Next to such accomplishments, the outgoing president added without elaboration: “I think the peace of Portsmouth was a substantial achievement. You probably know the part we played in the Algeciras conference.” In fact, for his efforts in settling the Russo-Japanese War and in calming the tensions between Germany and France over influence in Morocco, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. So it is curious that he used such tame words to note them in a long letter otherwise uncharacterized by modesty. He had no reason to be modest about either the prize or about his triumphs at Portsmouth and Algeciras; they represented Roosevelt at his best as an international leader. Although Roosevelt turned easily to military measures when he treated with small countries, he was the model diplomatist when he negotiated with sizable powers. The prize testified to that. Yet it was clearly strength rather than finesse of which he was most proud, a fact that remains among his most dubious legacies.
When Roosevelt stepped down in 1909, he had set well in motion a powerful current that propelled the American state into the mainstream of its modern responsibilities. His successors, most notably Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, moved even more substantially toward committing the federal government to restoring the congruity of the American business system to the country’s chief priorities, to protecting the nation from the less constructive effects of the industrial and corporative transformation of the economy, and to bringing the country’s resources to bear on international problems. Roosevelt himself would contribute further to the current over the remaining ten years of his life, but as a goad and gadfly rather than as a direct force.
At fifty, he was still a young man when he retired from the presidency. In that respect alone it was probably inevitable that he would return to presidential politics. His 1904 vow not to seek reelection in 1908 did not mean he would never seek the presidency again. After a brief interlude in 1909 and 1910 hunting in Africa and hobnobbing with Europe’s aristocracy, T. R. returned to the United States amid reform Republicans’ growing disenchantment with William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s chosen successor in the White House. Among other things, Taft’s dismissal of Gifford Pinchot from the Forest Service rankled particularly because it suggested the undoing of Roosevelt’s much cherished conservation program. When Taft chose in the fall of 1911 to prosecute the United States Steel Corporation for antitrust violations in its 1907 merger with the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, Roosevelt took the move as a personal affront because of his own role in that affair. That winter T. R. threw his own hat in the ring against Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination.
Taft defeated Roosevelt for the nomination, and T. R. bolted from the Grand Old Party to run for president as the standard-bearer of the newly organized Progressive party. Woodrow Wilson was elected with only 42 percent of the popular vote over both Roosevelt and Taft. It is worth noting that it was in the 1912 election campaign that T. R. gave full expression to the “New Nationalism,” a view of government that he had sought unsuccessfully during his presidency to make Republican party policy. It was a program that called upon Americans to put the national interest above their own special competitive interests; to accept government supervision of business, of labor relations, and of resource use and allocation; to take up responsibility for aiding the poor, the disabled, and the aged with federal unemployment, welfare, and retirement insurance plans; to accept both consolidation of economic power and government regulation of such power; and to make cooperation and control rather than competition and cupidity the new model for an American commonwealth.
Roosevelt’s New Nationalist campaign forced Wilson to counter with his own version of an industrial policy. Wilson called it the “New Freedom.” It contrasted with Roosevelt’s proposals in some significant matters, but the two programs held in common a firm commitment to a strong central government prepared to intervene in the nation’s business economy whenever compelling reasons of state—including a considered judgment about intolerable levels of human suffering—might require. Except for the regressive Republican interlude in the 1920s, it would become the established political posture of both major parties for almost seventy years.
On the other hand, by leading progressive Republicans out of the Republican party, Roosevelt in effect conceded the party to the reactionaries, who in a single generation turned the GOP into the minority party it basically remained for more than half a century. Meanwhile, Roosevelt quickly abandoned the Progressive party after the 1912 campaign, leaving it to dissolve without a leader or a cause before even the next election came around. It was not a noble performance. Nor did the years after 1912 add stature to Theodore Roosevelt as a citizen or statesman.
In office and campaigning for office, T. R. usually tempered his moral enthusiasm with a strong sense of realism and responsibility. Out of office, and especially on foreign policy matters, Roosevelt often gave in to his less generous impulses. The Great War, as contemporaries referred to it, would bring out the worst in Roosevelt. Long committed to at least an informal Anglo-American alliance, the expresident railed intemperately in public and in private for an early United States intervention on Britain’s side against Germany. He denounced President Wilson and others who strained to keep the country neutral as mollycoddles, cowards, hybrid Americans, and even traitors. When the United States did enter the war in 1917, he led the cry for punishment of all dissenters whether they were pacifists who opposed the war on religious or ethical principles or were critics of the government’s particular domestic and foreign policies. As always, suggestions about constitutionally protected individual rights won no favor from Roosevelt. In a war, he believed, loyalty to the nation, right or wrong, must be prompt, vigorous, unquestioning, and complete.
That the Woodrow Wilson administration often enough acted on those principles during the 1917-1920 period was in no small measure because of the pressure for a draconian repression that men like Roosevelt persistently demanded. The blows suffered by civil liberties during that period in fact shattered for years the confidence that progressive reformers had once placed in a strong central government. Roosevelt’s final years did much to undo what he had achieved for reform as president.
That Theodore Roosevelt is counted among the great heroes of the progressive democratic tradition, alongside Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, must be counted an oddity of historical circumstance. In essence, he was profoundly conservative, especially in his exaltation of martial values; in his emphasis on duty; in his simplistic view of patriotism; in his absolutistic understanding of morality, justice, and right; in his candid assertion of the moral superiority of the “right people” (defined by their effective organization and uses of power); in his easy distinction between the righteous and the malevolent, the civilized and the savage. But he happened upon the presidency just as the nation confronted seriously for the first time the emergence of a national, interstate corporate power that transformed traditional modes of business enterprise, threatened the integrity of democratic processes, and tampered with the mechanisms for free-market allocation of economic resources, rewards, and opportunities. As champion of a federal government strong enough and willful enough to restrain the men of new corporate power, Roosevelt became a democratic hero. His foreign policy, equally vigorous, bold, and prescient, continues to draw more mixed reviews.