Theodore: America’s Cowboy Statesman by Garrett Smith

Far from a perfect politician, but a great man.

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Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is often remembered by many Americans as a true man of vision, an assertive statesman, and the embodiment of masculinity. Many people on both the right and the left admire his legacy, and during his presidency, he enacted policies that would have pleased both Republicans and Democrats. From a conservative perspective, how should Teddy be remembered? Let’s take a brief look at the history of Theodore Roosevelt, from Rough Rider to Bull Moose.

The year is 1898. For a little over two months, the United States and Spain have been at war. Theodore Roosevelt, commander of the “Rough Riders,” is on the front lines with his men. The Rough Riders, tough as they sound, were America’s famous cowboy regiment, and many of the soldiers were volunteers that Teddy had previously met during his trips through the American West. On July 1, 1898, the Rough Riders, under the command of Theodore Roosevelt, would heroically take San Juan Hill from Spanish forces. The war would end around a month and a half later, and Roosevelt won the Medal of Honor, though he would not be awarded it until 2001.  He is currently the only U.S. president to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

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Figure 1: Commander Roosevelt (center left) and the Rough Riders.

How does Roosevelt’s presidency stack up, and how should it be remembered by Conservatives? Teddy was a mixed bag. A Republican, though a progressive, he held some views that would please conservatives, while liberals would be pleased by some of his stances on taxation and government regulation. As a progressive, he believed that taxation through a gradual income tax and the inheritance tax were appropriate for his “Square Deal” agenda. He also believed in certain corporate regulations. On the issue of railroad regulations, Teddy said this: “The proposal to make the National Government supreme over, and therefore to give it complete control over, the railroads and other instruments of interstate commerce is merely a proposal to carry out to the letter one of its prime purposes, if not the prime purpose, for which the Constitution was founded. It does not represent centralization. It represents merely the acknowledgement of the patent fact that centralization has already come in business.” On these big-government-styled beliefs, many of today’s conservatives would have disagreed with Teddy.

On the other hand, Teddy was a conservationist when it came to the outdoors. He loved hunting and exploring, and he frequently enjoyed traveling through the American West, the jungles of South America, or the African Savannah. He was a renowned big game hunter, and during his hunting years, he killed several types of dangerous game, including grizzlies, lions, and rhinos. A conservationist, Teddy understood that hunting was often an effective way of controlling certain types of animals and keeping their populations in check. He is the president who has been most commonly associated with the national park movement. On land conservation, he stated in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, “Conservation means development as much as it does protection…I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children.”

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Figure 3: Theodore Roosevelt with John Muir

On international relations, Teddy’s view is summed up perfectly by his famous statement: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Somewhat of an imperialist, Teddy wanted the world to experience Americanism. Rather than let them experience it on their own accord, however, he often embarked on missions to take Americanism to them. On this, conservatives such as Rand Paul would have disagreed, while George W. Bush would have most likely approved. In many cases, however, Teddy would leave the foreign nation once he felt the mission was accomplished. In a speech delivered in Norway, 1910, he acknowledged what he once said in regard to getting involved in another nation’s affairs: “We will stay in Cuba to help it on its feet, and then we will leave the island in better shape to maintain its permanent independent existence. And before I left the presidency Cuba resumed its career as a separate republic, holding its head erect as a sovereign state among the other nations of the earth. All that our people want is just exactly what the Cuban people themselves want – that is, a continuance of order within the island, and peace and prosperity, so that there shall be no shadow of an excuse for any outside intervention.”He also spoke the same of San Domingo. Another notable aspect of Teddy’s presidency, in concern to foreign relations, is that he became the first president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, due to his attempts to bring peace between the warring empires of Russia and Japan.

On regarding patriotism, Teddy was a strong advocate of American Exceptionalism. Liberals who heavily criticize President Trump would be appalled to hear that Teddy did not believe in a “hyphenated American.” In 1919, he stated, “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag…We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency ended in 1909. Following this comes his unfortunate shift to the Progressive “Bull Moose” party for a short time. His protégé, William H. Taft, who assumed the presidency following Roosevelt, tried following in his Republican footsteps. While giving a speech for the Progressive Party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1912, Teddy was shot in the chest with a .32-caliber handgun by a mentally-disturbed saloon keeper. The bullet did not strike any vital organs, however, and Teddy finished a 12-minute speech before receiving medical attention. He addressed the crowd by saying, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot – but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!”

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Figure 4:Roosevelt giving a speech for the Bull Moose Party.

The “Bull Moose” Party, as it became known, although embracing certain aspects from the Republican platform, supported many ideas that Republicans would not such as socialized medicine and government-controlled healthcare. Due to this, many members of the Republican Party, including his former protégé, walked away from him. My good friend Austin von Henner, from UNC Asheville, states that it must have been tragic for Teddy, to have his party and protégé walk away from him near the end of his life, due to the fact that he began supporting left-wing ideas that he once fought against.

Teddy returned to the Republican Party in 1916, but it was too late. In the 1912 election, he picked up Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington, and California for the Bull Moose Party, securing many votes that would have otherwise gone to Taft, therefore giving the election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. An attempt to defeat Wilson in the 1916 election due to the Republican Party’s attempted reunification was unsuccessful. Theodore Roosevelt passed away in 1919. He had lived a great life, full of courage and adventure. Although he made a political mistake near the end, Teddy was still admired and loved by many people, and he continues to be.

Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as a great statesman for many reasons. At the beginning of this article, I asked a question that I would quickly like to reflect on: From a Conservative perspective, how should Teddy be remembered? Theodore Roosevelt, like any veteran, will always be admired by conservatives for his bravery and heroism in battle. The fact that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at San Juan Hill and the Nobel Peace Prize for his attempts to end the Russo-Japanese War will always be a tremendous part of his legacy.

From a Republican standpoint, Teddy had some views that conservatives should love, while others that they should refrain from. His stances on land conservation, strong love for putting America first, and helping bring an end to the Russo-Japanese War should be embraced by conservatives; his stances on taxation and certain government regulations, as well as certain aspects of spreading Americanism, should not be.

Is it fine for a conservative to like Teddy Roosevelt? Of course! No person to walk this earth, other than Jesus Christ, has been perfect. Everyone has their select favorite political heroes, and they are entitled to like someone while disagreeing with them and criticizing them on certain issues simultaneously. It is important to remember that every politician, at some point or another – especially the ones you love – will occasionally let you down. Although Teddy was a mixed bag, we can criticize some of the policies he enacted while president, as well as his stance on big-government ideas from the Progressive Party, while appreciating the fact that he encouraged all Americans to put America first, love your land, and love your country.

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