T. R. The Last Romantic
A good reason to read Brands’ biography of our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, is that he lived a highly unusual personal and political life as a moral absolutist. Throughout and until the day he died, T.R. had little difficulty distinguishing ‘right from wrong’. He knew the Devil when confronted with conflicting situations that called for a moral answer. His decisions about his personal life and his political life were abundantly clear to all. Simply put, honest and brave men agreed with him; cowardly and corrupt men disagreed. What could be more straightforward?
Through his use of executive power, his enormous energy, and his magnetic personality T.R. became one of our most beloved public figures. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to be generous in evaluating the historical outcome of Roosevelt’s use of executive mandates in acting for “the public welfare.” He, almost alone, ushered in America’s Progressive Era that first culminated with The New Deal, was partially buried during the last 25 years by free markets, and has now been resurrected.
Reading Brands’ T.R.: The Last Romantic would help one assess the political impact of yesterday’s moral absolutist from the impact of today’s moral relativist. Embarking upon a process to determine personal decisions regarding which view is more beneficial to the well being of the country and its citizens one needs to be aware that it may take more analysis of the interrelated dynamics than first thought. As our history has taught us, democracy is fraught with devilish choices that do not always lend themselves to dogma.
In his early adult life Roosevelt suffered simultaneous personal tragedies on February 14, 1884 when his mother and wife both died in the same house. His wife died from complications of childbirth and his mother from typhoid. They were buried together February 16th. He concluded at the death of his wife: “That for joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.” Little was the world to suspect his future.
The surviving baby, Alice, was all but abandoned by Roosevelt and was placed in the care of his sister. He never warmed to her the way he did to the other children from a future marriage.
Brands aptly describes Roosevelt’s feelings about American honor and the necessity of the warrior code. A rich nation that is slothful, timid, or unwieldy is an easy prey for those who retain soldierly virtues. Roosevelt felt that nothing could compensate for a lack of national or personal courage. “ Cowardice in a race, as in an individual, is the unpardonable sin.” Those feelings were largely driven by the heroic exploits of his Bulloch uncles during the Civil War, his experiences with the code of the wild U. S. West, and the blemish he felt about his family honor as his father had paid to be relieved of Civil War military duty.
Roosevelt’s motto was “…better to err on the side of over readiness than on the side of tame submission….” A lesson for the ages as he opined that no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, a country can quickly lose its right to stand as the equal of the best. This became part of his absolutist vision concerning the role of America in world affairs. Roosevelt’s use of bellicose language in defending American Exceptionalism is largely unknown in today’s national political rhetoric. But, we can be certain that T.R. would not approve of and would soundly denounce as detestable the pusillanimous language now used in defining our international role. He never waived in his sturdy defense of America.
At one time every American schoolboy was familiar with the daring story of Roosevelt leading the charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War of 1898. However, few realize that the bitterest fighting was at Kettle Hill where Roosevelt led the charge of his Rough Riders shaming the regulars into joining him. Roosevelt was described as the most conspicuous figure in the charge, mounted high on horseback, charging the rifle pits at a gallop, a blue polka-dot handkerchief on his sombrero, so quite alone and brave that “you would like to cheer”.
For these heroic exploits Roosevelt now felt that he had done something that would leave a name to the children, which they could be “rightly proud”. T.R. was thus nominated for a Medal of Honor that was finally awarded to him posthumously in 2001. Following in the family military tradition it should be noted that one of his sons was killed in WWI as a highly decorated fighter pilot and another was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism on the Normandy beaches during the invasion of June 6, 1944. The combination of an American President and son both receiving the highest of all military awards for heroism is historic in the annals of U.S. history. Roosevelt was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and that is seemingly incongruent with his penchant to threaten the use of military force as national policy.
Brands vividly describes one of America’s national tragedies and the events leading to the responsibilities of the Presidency falling upon Vice President Roosevelt on September 14, 1901 at the death of McKinley by the hand of an anarchist. The assassination was seen as a blow at America’s essence. Noted Roosevelt, “It was in the most naked way an assault not on power, not on wealth, but simply and solely upon free government, government by the common people.” The first War hero since Grant was now President of the United States. This Rough Rider had now ridden to the zenith of the highest possible political hill in America.
Roosevelt became President as America was becoming increasingly industrialized. Industrialization was creating a life hitherto unknown as people exited agriculture for the factories and urban areas. Huge corporations were being formed that had monopolistic powers corrupting the political process and T.R. became known as a trustbuster. In his defense, he never felt that American business was evil but that Corporations in conjunction with politicians were a corrupting influence upon the welfare of the people. Many of today’s political class have quite a different attitude by painting business as evil in its own right.
In understanding where in the American political tradition the idea of unlimited, redistributive notions as fairness were created one needs to look no further than Roosevelt as the original big government liberal. In 1910, T.R. proffered a general right of the community to regulate the earning of income and use of private property to whatever degree the public welfare may require it. In other words, redistribution of an individual’s wealth by the government at its finest.
All who believe in this sort of redistributive governance know the Constitution is their enemy in implementation as it bypasses the preference aspect that established the protection of equal natural rights as the permanent task of the government. The national government, in T.R.’s view, was not one of enumerated powers but of general powers, and the purpose of the Constitution was merely to state the narrow exceptions to that rule. Progressives reject the assumption that the power of the people is the general rule and that the power of the government is the exception.
Historians point to the demise and rejection of this most basic, historic understanding of our Founding Fathers originally outlined by Hamilton in the Federalist Papers as the time that government quit talking about the Constitution as our country’s guiding general principle. Progressivism, then and today, is a sophistic argument that erodes respect for individual personal and economic freedoms that are our bedrock beliefs and subordinates them to the demands of the State. I, for one, believe Roosevelt’s national development of Progressivism has tainted his legacy.
Sadly, during the 20th Century, members of both political parties and much of the judiciary have embraced this departure from original intent largely as a method to secure votes. Progressive rhetoric has consistently misled voters into thinking that their elected officials are working for the public’s behalf when they are actually increasing their own personal and party power. It is Hamilton’s worse nightmare becoming ours as well!
In spite of the unpleasant results of Roosevelt’s policies by those acolytes who overstepped as the century progressed, he remains as one of our Presidents most beloved, most determined, and most creative. His intellectual curiosity coupled with a robust physical nature led the United States onto the world stage. Brands outlines in T.R.: The last Romantic all of the notable aspects of Roosevelt’s life and Presidency in a fashion that brings pride to the reader, to the author, and to the man. Undoubtedly, T.R. is, in life as well as death, an American icon.
I believe that C-133 crewmembers will enjoy Brands history of this era as we lived so much of it and it speaks directly to our military mission of providing a safe, free, and democratic homeland.
39th ATS, DAFB