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The Active Authoritarianism of Teddy Roosevelt

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Bully Boy
by Jim Powell (Crown Forum, 2006); 329 pages, $27.50.

Most historians rank Teddy Roosevelt as one of America’s great or near-great presidents. That is mainly because he is regarded as a “progressive” — a trustbuster, a proponent of government regulation of the economy, a conservationist — all of which appeal to the anti-market philosophy they hold. He must have done a lot for the country, since his face is engraved on Mount Rushmore, right?

It would be more accurate to say that Teddy Roosevelt did a lot to the country. In Bully Boy, historian Jim Powell explores the many ways in which the United States was made worse off by the swaggering, blustering energy of the man. Powell shows that you can regard Teddy Roosevelt as a great president only if you believe that the criteria for greatness include an eagerness to meddle in the conflicts of other nations, a disregard for constitutional limits on governmental power, a disdain for profit through commerce, and the desire to subject people to control by governmental experts who will act “in the public interest.” In sum, Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing authoritarian, and we still live with the baneful effects of his presidency.

In his previous books, Powell has critically examined two other vastly overrated presidents (Woodrow Wilson and Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt) and exposed them as dangerous misfits who should never have held any public office, let alone the presidency. He pulls no punches with Teddy Roosevelt either, showing him to be a man obsessed with power and control, utterly unable to comprehend the damage that his mega-state would cause. Powell writes of his Harvard-educated subject,

For all his knowledge, however, Roosevelt failed to recognize the dangers of political power and war…. Roosevelt recklessly intervened in the lives of Americans and in the affairs of other nations, and we have seen the policy backfire. The more power government has had over people, the more intense the struggles to control it. Small issues become the occasion for big political battles.

 

The great expansion of the role of government that Roosevelt catalyzed took America from being a nation where the people expected little from the state other than the protection of life, liberty, and property, to the behemoth we see today, promising everything to everyone at the expense of life, liberty, and property.

The book is set out as a series of questions: Why did Roosevelt believe in increasing government power over the lives of people? Why did he want to involve the United States in foreign conflicts? Why did he engage in “trust-busting” that actually reduced competition and harmed consumers? Why did he attack America’s largest industry — the railroads? Why did he demand government regulation over food and drugs? Why did he push for “conservation” policies that were wasteful and destructive? Why did he work hard to saddle the nation with the progressive income tax? And in conclusion, Powell asks, what was Teddy Roosevelt’s real legacy?


Authoritarian roots

Roosevelt, who was born in New York in 1858, became enthused about politics at an early age. After graduating from Harvard, he entered Columbia Law School but dropped out to pursue his passion, namely angling for public office. He was elected to the New York state legislature in 1881 at the tender age of 23. He’d hit pay dirt! Two years later, he was elected speaker of the House.

Teddy first made it to Washington during the administration of Republican President Benjamin Harrison, with an appointment as the Civil Service commissioner. He wasn’t really happy with such a minor post, and in a few years he was back in New York. He thought about running for mayor, but decided against it and the winner rewarded him with the post of police commissioner. Roosevelt fought the widespread corruption he found in the police department, but also went on a crusade to enforce the city’s “blue laws” against serving alcoholic beverages on Sundays. That put on display his puritanical, authoritarian nature: the state decides what is moral and the people must obey.

Even more revealing is the fact that Roosevelt admired the work of the social reformer Jacob Riis. Riis, a Danish immigrant, had written about the housing conditions in New York and Roosevelt avidly read his book How the Other Half Lives. Riis advocated government action to improve the lives of the urban poor, and Powell writes that under his influence

Roosevelt began to promote the idea of achieving reform through government and to disparage the profit-seeking entrepreneur who had done so much to expand the economy, create jobs, and improve living standards.

 

A typical politician, he could not see that social problems can’t be solved with the simple expedient of enacting some new laws.

Roosevelt thought that social problems such as poor, crowded housing arose because people were too free to make their own decisions rather than having to follow orders from those who were more intelligent and caring. As to any adverse consequences of government programs designed to do good, Roosevelt evidently never considered the possibility. He was a man of action, not contemplation.


Roosevelt and foreign affairs

That penchant for action was at its worst when it came to foreign affairs. Roosevelt gloried in war and was eager to participate when the Republican administration of William McKinley plunged into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Teddy raised his cavalry unit, named the “Rough Riders,” and won fame with his attack up San Juan Hill in the one-sided fighting against the moribund Spanish empire in Cuba. Militarism ran strong in his blood and Powell provides us with this startling quotation:

All the great, masterful races have been fighting races, and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then, no matter what else it may retain, no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best.

 

That reminds one of Napoleon’s sneering quip that the British were “just a nation of shopkeepers.” Neither saw much to admire in mere production and commerce.

Teddy’s exploits during the Spanish-American War made him a hero and won him a place on the Republican ticket in 1900 as McKinley’s vice president. When McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Teddy took over the White House. American expansion was on his agenda and he dismissed the Anti-Imperialist League (which included prominent Republicans and Democrats; Mark Twain was its best-known member) as “men of a bygone age.” During his presidency, Roosevelt dispatched American troops to numerous places. The fighting in the Philippines — taken from Spain in 1898 — was particularly brutal. His connivance to secure for the United States a route across the Isthmus of Panama for a canal was another black mark, regarded by many Americans as nothing short of outright theft. When Roosevelt instructed his attorney general, Philander Knox, to develop a defense of his actions, Knox replied, “Mr. President, do not let such a great achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”


Roosevelt and regulation

It wasn’t only in foreign affairs that Roosevelt insisted on carrying — and often using — “a big stick.” Powell details his incessant economic interventions. Teddy was a traditional high-tariff Republican, but his meddling went far beyond that. He gladly signed into law the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which Powell shows had nothing to do with protecting the public against unsafe meat. Upton Sinclair’s sensational novel The Jungle was just fiction intended to get Americans clamoring for socialism. The allegations that Americans were being sold lots of impure meat were easily refuted and Roosevelt knew it. Still, he viewed federal regulation as a “modern” step and readily took it.

Roosevelt’s much ballyhooed “trustbusting” was not done to save consumers from high prices — the industries that Teddy’s antitrust brigade attacked were responsible for decades of falling prices after the Civil War — but was just a distraction from the ill effects of his policy of high tariffs. Furthermore, at least some of his crusades against big business were motivated by personal animosity towards the captains of industry, especially the leaders of the railroads. Roosevelt got his way when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in the Northern Securities Case in 1904, breaking up a railroad holding company on vague antitrust grounds. Powell includes a terribly revealing aside to that case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had dissented, unable to see that the railroads had committed any violation of law. His dissent so angered Roosevelt that, Holmes wrote,

[it] broke up our incipient friendship, as he looked on my dissent as a political departure (or, I suspect, more truly, couldn’t forgive anyone who stood in his way).


Roosevelt and income taxation

Powell covers Roosevelt’s advocacy of the income tax in his last chapter. All the rest of Teddy’s rambunctious meddling pales in comparison with the damage that has been done by the federal income tax. The story is that Democrats (most notably William Jennings Bryan) had agitated for adoption of an income tax as a substitute for high tariffs, arguing that it would be a more equitable means of raising revenue for the government. Many Republicans were also income-tax supporters, but they wanted it to supplement tariff revenues, not replace them. In 1894, Congress passed an income-tax bill and it became law without President Cleveland’s signature. When the Supreme Court struck down the law in 1895, many politicians were outraged, including Teddy Roosevelt.

During his presidency, Roosevelt pushed for two new taxes — graduated (“progressive”) taxes on income and inheritance. In June 1907, he said that “most great civilized countries have both an income tax and an inheritance tax.” Other “great civilized countries” also had empires and huge military establishments — other features of “greatness” that Roosevelt admired. Congress did not pass either while Teddy was in office, but his support was instrumental in the eventual enactment of the Sixteenth Amendment. The kinds of big government projects Roosevelt loved took lots of revenue and he was the prototype of later presidents who are always looking for ways to take money away from taxpayers so politicians can spend it as they choose.

What was Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy? He set the pattern for the costly “nation-building” escapades of most subsequent presidents. He hatched the mania for federal regulation of business that today swamps enterprises large and small in thousands of pages of niggling rules — not to mention the expense of employing all the bureaucrats who enforce them. He established the precedent for using antitrust prosecutions in order to look “tough” in the eyes of gullible voters while punishing industries he didn’t like. He put the federal government in the business of “conservation,” which in fact means special-interest programs for the benefit of a few. He greased the rails for the adoption of income and inheritance taxes that have been fueling the growth of the federal behemoth for the last century. All in all, quite a performance!

The court historians have done their best to make people think that Teddy Roosevelt was a great, energetic leader. He was undeniably energetic, but he led the United States down one wrong path after another. Thanks to Jim Powell for a gimlet-eyed appraisal of this terribly overrated politician.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.