The Rough Reckoning of the Rough Rider by Garrett Smith

Theodore Roosevelt and his shift to true progressivism.

My second article for this publication, which I have been blessed to write for, was titled, Theodore: America’s Cowboy Statesman. In this piece, I took you on a historical tour of our 26th president, from Rough Rider to Bull Moose. It was an article designed to provide the historical facts of Theodore Roosevelt and his time in the spotlight. In this article, I want to provide a thought-provoking experience on how exactly we should remember TR following his presidency. I am going to be very personal and I want the reader to ask some serious questions (some of which could pertain to today’s politics).

Theodore Roosevelt, best known as Teddy, has been a favorite among the American peoples’ presidents for decades. In fact, he is in my top three. He became the father of the National Park movement, arguably paved the way for the modern working class, had Teddy Bears named after him, and even got his face featured on Mount Rushmore. Until recently, however, historians had rarely examined all of his political positions, especially following his two terms as president. It is very unfortunate, but as we will see, Teddy actually began to drift away from the political figureheads he claimed to admire.

This is no book review, but I want to briefly emphasize one piece written in 2014. Professor Jean M. Yarbrough, in her book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, praises Teddy on various issues but heavily criticizes him on others. Yarbrough focuses on the fact that Teddy became the antithesis of what he claimed to love, beginning in the last two years of his presidency. Teddy had three political figures that he admired most, and he claimed to follow their example: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln. Teddy despised the more liberal figureheads, such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and William Jennings Bryan. Yarbrough uses her book to assert that Teddy especially began to sway from his idols’ teachings after his presidency.

Before and during his presidency, Teddy was a follower of the Constitution (though he extended the executive hand) and he followed the policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln. He has been criticized in recent years for his reach of executive power into trust-busting, but one could argue that he was only following Adam Smith’s capitalist teachings (Smith said it was fine for the government to break up monopolies). There is a point, however, that I feel we should criticize him. From Lincoln to McKinley, the president usually kept out of most affairs and only signed an executive order when they felt it was absolutely necessary. Teddy, on the other hand, pushed executive power to the limit and signed over 1,000 executive orders during nearly his eight years as president. He stated, “I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the Presidents and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.”

Following his presidency, Teddy began his very radical shift to the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. Thoroughly displeased with the presidency of his former protégé, William H. Taft, Teddy left the GOP to form the Progressive Party and pushed for several left-wing reforms. Some of the reforms mentioned within the Progressive Party’s platform are good, and many of them are featured in society today. These include an eight-hour workday, restrictions on child labor, and women’s suffrage. Other tenants of the platform, however, go against the very ideas put in place by the founders. These include a national healthcare service, easier amending of the Constitution, an inheritance tax, and direct election of U.S. senators (which we have with the 17th Amendment, though the founders wished for senators to be elected through state legislatures).

I sincerely hope this article has been thought-provoking. For the most part, I admire Theodore Roosevelt before and during his presidency. Following this, however, Teddy became a very different political figure. It is unfortunate that someone with his energy and intellect went from a follower of Washington and Lincoln to something he once stood so vehemently against. On this, it’s my opinion that he should absolutely be criticized. I want to close this article with a few questions for readers to ponder: Was Theodore Roosevelt a good president, or did he unnecessarily expand executive power? Was he a proficient trust-buster, or did he hurt the economy more than help it? Most importantly, should he be judged by just his presidency, or by his entire political career – from V.P. to Bull Moose?

Follow historian, @GWSmith1993, on Twitter.

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