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 sud. denly 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.

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