If there is one moment that encapsulates the larger-than-life persona of Theodore Roosevelt, it occurred in 1912. While traveling to a campaign stop in Milwaukee as a presidential candidate on the Bull Moose Progressive ticket, Roosevelt was shot in the chest at close range by a would-be assassin. He refused to be treated by a doctor. As he stepped up to the podium at the rally, blood could be seen seeping through his shirt. Then he noticed that his 50-page speech had been shot clean through by the bullet. The historian Edmund Morris writes, "For some reason, the sight of the double starburst perforation seemed to shock him more than the blood he had seen on his fingertips. He hesitated, temporarily wordless, then tried to make the crowd laugh again with his humorous falsetto: ‘You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.’" Only after speaking for an hour did he visit a hospital. His thick overcoat, steel eyeglass case, and lengthy speech blunted the impact of the bullet, saving his life.
It is anecdotes like this—along with his time as a hunter and cowboy in the Dakota Territory in the mid-1880s and his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War—that have indelibly etched Roosevelt into the American character. Of course, he is also quite literally etched onto the American landscape at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, though he was lucky to join the other carved presidents (the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, worked on Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign and personally admired him). Brash yet charming, Roosevelt's exploits seem to embody the self-sacrifice and frontier spirit of a nation preparing to be a world leader at the turn of the twentieth century. As Roosevelt’s British friend Lord Morley described him, "he is not an American, you know, he is America."
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Roosevelt remains popular today: A 2007 Rasmussen poll found that 84 percent of Americans viewed him favorably. While also popular in his own time, he was enormously controversial. Daniel Ruddy, author of the new book Theodore the Great, helpfully illustrates this point by citing a Baltimore Sun survey from 1909, just after Roosevelt’s last presidential term. When asked what nickname would stick to Roosevelt, his supporters offered "Teddy," "The Big Stick," "The Trust Buster," and "Theodore the Great," among others, portraying him as the man who stood up to monopolistic corporations at home and asserted American interests abroad. His detractors criticized his perceived arrogance and abuse of executive power, suggesting names like "The Egoist," "Almost a Nero," "The Dictator," and "The One Who Knew It All."
So who was the real Theodore Roosevelt? Was he a patriotic champion of average Americans and model statesman, or an autocrat whose legacy should serve as a warning about the dangers of the imperial presidency?
If the title of his book hasn’t already given it away, Ruddy is firmly in the pro-Roosevelt camp. He deserves to be remembered as one of our greatest presidents, Ruddy writes, because he "reinvigorated American democracy" by rooting out corruption in political machines and monopolies and restoring power to the people. A member of one of New York City’s wealthiest families, Roosevelt was nonetheless inspired to attack the privilege and favor-trading of those at the top; his father (who died when Theodore was 19) was denied a leadership post at the New York Customs House by Roscoe Conkling, the boss of the Republican machine in New York.
Conservative critics of Roosevelt tend to view him as the first progressive president because of his preference for active government. Yet Ruddy insists that he was actually a conservative reformer in the tradition of Edmund Burke, inasmuch as he backed proposals that responded to contemporary challenges and prevented social disorder and revolution. In the case of monopolistic trusts, Roosevelt wrote just before his presidency that he was "exceedingly alarmed at the growth of the popular unrest and popular distrust on this question" fueled by socialists and radical populists like William Jennings Bryan. "What I fear is, if we do not have some consistent policy to advocate then the multitudes will follow the crank who advocates the absurd policy, but who does advocate something." Roosevelt won popular acclaim shortly after becoming president by suing to dissolve J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities railroad trust—a bold move that led opponents to call him "a weird magician of politics." He was not as radical a trust-buster as some have claimed, though; Ruddy notes that Roosevelt also approved the enlargement of U.S. Steel to limit economic calamity during the Panic of 1907.
On foreign policy, Ruddy argues that Roosevelt "helped transform America into a world power in the twentieth century." One reason for his popularity was his ability to end wars (shrewd diplomacy to end the Russo-Japanese War earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906) and prevent new ones. He pushed for the construction of a dozen more battleships. This proved wise when he sent them on a "training cruise" in the Pacific to deter Japan from seizing the Philippines and Hawaii. ("The Japs have been very cocky since the war with Russia, but they will hesitate to molest us as long as we carry a big stick," he said at the time.) Yet his policy toward Japan also revealed the limitations of his balance-of-power approach: By allowing Japan a sphere of influence in Asia, he acquiesced in its brutal occupation of Korea (a U.S. treaty ally) and failed to check its rising ambitions.
In his defense of Roosevelt, Ruddy has marshaled a fair amount of primary-source research for a short biography. But that is also a problem with his book. The research leaves him too reliant on sources that are favorable to Roosevelt, while glossing over some of Roosevelt's more troubling statements and ignoring others entirely. Examined critically, Roosevelt’s view of governance and the presidency makes him anything but a "conservative crusader."
Most troubling is Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech in 1910, which Ruddy barely mentions. Roosevelt defined this new nationalistic approach as "impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock." Further, it "regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare." This was an argument for a unitary executive that would embody the popular will and trample on the Constitution’s separation of powers. It laid the groundwork for Woodrow Wilson's administration and every progressive president thereafter; it is no coincidence that Barack Obama—whose administration has further expanded the administrative state and subverted constitutional democracy—channeled Roosevelt's new nationalism a century later. (Based on their rhetoric, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would continue this trend of progressive anti-constitutionalism.)
Conservatism at its heart is defined by the principles of gratitude and humility: gratitude for the Constitution and democratic institutions bequeathed by our Founders, with a humble preference for gradual reforms that empower families, churches, communities, and markets, not federal technocrats. Executive unilateralism contradicts these principles.
Theodore Roosevelt was many things—naturalist, cowboy, soldier, popular president, larger-than-life figure. But he was no conservative.