Victor Nuovo: Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism
Editor’s note: This is the 57th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Like Populism, the Progressive Movement was embodied by a great personage, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). He embodied it the way he lived, and he expressed it repeatedly in words, for example, in an address delivered in Chicago, in April 1899, two years before he became President, entitled “The Strenuous Life.” The title says it all, but these words from the speech spell it out:
“In the last analysis a healthy nation can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when their children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk. The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children.”
Theodore Roosevelt adhered to traditional gender roles. Yet, on reflection, the intended hierarchy may be inverted. Men labor with their bodies, but women’s bodies surpass the power of men, for they can do things that men cannot: conceive and bear children, nurse them, and care for them with mother love. There is no greater love. I offer this as a proper interpretation of TR’s meaning. But I digress.
Afflicted with severe asthma as a child, he overcame this disability through bodybuilding: weightlifting and boxing. He endured tragedy. In 1884, his wife died from complications due to childbirth; his mother died earlier on the same day. Grief stricken, TR went west to the Dakotas, and became a cowboy; there he breathed in the frontier spirit, which he put into words in a multi-volume work entitled “The Winning of the West,” which anticipated Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis (Essay 51). When the Spanish American War broke out, TR was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He resigned his post, and joined a newly formed cavalry regiment, dubbed the Rough Riders, of which he subsequently became head, and which he led to glory at the battle of San Juan Hill.
His children regarded him as a lion; and he is the namesake of the Teddy Bear. He possessed enormous energy, a strong will, great courage, and high intelligence.
What has this all to do with Progressivism? It is important to keep in mind that the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century had little if anything to do with 21st century Progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt envisioned the heroes of the Progressive Movement as a curious combination of the cowboy, the titan of industry, and the well-born elitist. His vision of America was of a nation’s whose destiny was to gain supremacy in industrial and commercial growth throughout the world. And in military might as well. He was not a militarist, but, as the historian Richard Slotkin has shown, his Social Darwinian view of history involved the upward struggle of the nations and their people, and so it required a readiness to exert power. His political counsel, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” became a national motto.
While a student, Roosevelt came under the influence of Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who was founder of the Lawrence School of Science at Harvard. I will write more on Agassiz in a later essay; here it is important to note that Agassiz was the author and promoter of a dubious scientific theory concerning the races of mankind that gave credence to the prevailing racism. Racial identity was an essential part of personality development and a constant companion of the person. Roosevelt swallowed it all and made it the basis of his theory of historical progress, which he imagined was coming to fruition in the historical progress of the United States.
What caused Roosevelt to seek instruction with Agassiz was a deep and enduring love of nature. He studied natural history, became a naturalist and an environmentalist and conservationist. As president, he created four national parks, and gave strong support to the National Park Service. A noble legacy.
In his opinion, the native peoples of America were an unproductive race. Their eventual subjection and extermination was therefore inevitable in the march of history. They were succeeded by heroic figures, exemplified by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who mastered the ways of the Indian, became bold hunters, but used their skills for a greater purpose. Above all they bequeathed to posterity the essential virtues of self-reliance. They and others like them opened pathways to the West, and many followed. These were the pioneers, in search of free land and with a will to make it productive. This was not the agrarian vision of Jefferson, who envisioned a nation of small farmers, not cowboys and their successors, the titans of industry — another role that Roosevelt championed. Not theirs, but the large industrial farms were what he favored, which was just one step on the way to this nation becoming an industrial and commercial giant. And, in the progress of America, just as farmers displaced cowboys, so agribusiness displaced farming with a requisite change of personnel, and they were accompanied by the great bankers and owners of great industries, who tended to come from the Eastern elite, to whom Roosevelt belonged. To achieve this, Roosevelt felt it necessary that the government facilitate the growth of business, and he created the Department of Commerce in 1903. Like his cousin, Franklin, he believed that government must actively promote the economic growth of the nation. He believed this also with respect to conserving the environment.
Overall, Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of America was imperial, and he likened it to ancient Rome. He was a strong advocate of the war with Spain in 1898, for it not only brought that empire to an end, but also secured American colonial expansion, a great step forward for Anglo-Saxon peoples.
Postscript: Theodore Roosevelt became President in September 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated. He was re-elected in 1904, and left office in January 1909, having pledged not to seek another term. Angered by the policies of his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, he left the Republican Party and ran again for President under the banner of the newly formed Bull Moose Party. He was defeated by Woodrow Wilson. “Bully for Teddy!”
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