What Teddy Thought

What Teddy Thought

Everyone knows, or should know, that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, our 26th president, was a doer, a “type A” type of guy if there ever was one. He charged up San Juan Hill. He killed scores of wild animals on several continents. He punched cattle, busted trusts and wrote thirty books. He made Japan and Russia make nice, garnering the Nobel Peace Prize. He once gave a stump speech while bleeding profusely from a would-be assassin’s bullet. Enough said.

In “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness” Joshua Hawley has undertaken a biographical challenge worthy of his subject: to subordinate what the Rough Rider did in favor of illuminating and analyzing in great detail what he thought and why.

Thankfully, Roosevelt’s political ideas rival his dashing resume. They shaped a presidency that in many ways was the first truly modern administration in our history. A century ago, he started arguments about the proper role of the federal government and the executive branch that have yet to be resolved within the Republican Party, much less by the nation as a whole. It is Hawley’s contention that Roosevelt’s ideological contributions have not only been largely neglected by his many biographers, but that they are worthy of consideration alongside the musings of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and their ilk.

The author traces his subject’s formidable moral and reforming impulses to his patrician father’s concern for the less fortunate, to the prevailing “masculine Christianity” that favored the “righteousness of works” over unearned grace. The author also ably situates Roosevelt in the social and intellectual ferment of the late 19th century, when America was enduring a wrenching transformation from rural to urban, farm to factory, from self-reliant yeoman to assembly-line drudge.

The country was getting big fast, and novel ideas were bandied about to explain it all. The turbulent times even took a toll on Roosevelt’s rarified class. Grande dames fainted dead away with the “vapors,” and male scions suffered from “neurasthenia,” a cross between a nervous breakdown and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

No ideas were more novel than Charles Darwin’s, whose “Origin of the Species” was published in 1859, when Roosevelt was one-year old. Darwin’s thesis that species had to adapt and improve or lose out in the evolutionary struggle had a profound effect on political thought. Roosevelt and others applied it to humankind. In their pseudo-scientific hierarchy, the Teutonic race that begat England that begat America stood at the pinnacle of existence. It was America’s duty to advance its preeminent civilization and pull or drag the “lesser peoples” along in its wake.

Roosevelt synthesized his political philosophy from such influences, as well as his study of American history. Hawley’s short hand for what evolved is “warrior republicanism.” The saving grace of Roosevelt’s ambitious presidency from 1901 to 1908 was that he believed Americans had a duty to be not simply strong, but good, just and united as well. He envisioned the presidency as a particularly unifying office, its holder unique in being elected by the nation as a whole, in contrast to the squabbling, petty nabobs in the Congress. He strove to unite a fractious electorate so that the nation could accomplish great things as one people. Has a contemporary ring, doesn’t it?

In this quest, Roosevelt wasn’t shy about bashing his fellow Brahmins, writing in 1911: “There is not in the world a more ignoble [person] than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” When he saw that his own class was growing too powerful and prosperous, he made the federal government bigger so that it could do battle with the mighty corporate trusts. In a stunningly un-Republican move, he proposed a progressive inheritance tax on large fortunes.

Roosevelt came to feel strongly that many citizens of humble means needed a boost so they could participate in the all-important political process that would move the nation (and the American race) forward. In his second term he championed the eight-hour day, workmen’s compensation for federal workers, and a ban on child labor, among other worker’s rights legislation.

A recent graduate of Yale Law School who is currently clerking for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Hawley writes prose that generally flows smoothly over a demanding biographical landscape of complex ideas. He does veer, on occasion, into dense thickets: “To the colonel’s [Roosevelt] collectivist, Rousseauesque interpretation of the general will, [Woodrow] Wilson opposed a more Lockean variant that eschewed Roosevelt’s commitment to moral teleology...” The High Court might have trouble interpreting that sentence.