Commentary Magazine


The Republican Roosevelt, by John M. Blum

T.R. and Patrician Rule
The Republican Roosevelt.
by John M. Blum.
Harvard University Press. 161 pp. $3.50.

 

There was more to Theodore Roosevelt than the grimace, toothy grin, and pristine vigor which are his trademark—not unlike the stripes on Uncle Sam’s pants. His blustering hundred per-centism; his busting up and cracking down; his treading softly and carrying a big stick; his “Gentlemen, the Almighty God and the Just Cause are with You”; his boy scout morality (which was gratified by the suicide of Tolstoy’s heroine Anna Karenina)—all these have endured in the national character beyond the interment of the mortal Roosevelt at Oyster Bay in 1919. Some of the chief issues with which he wrestled as President of the United States between 1901 and 1908 have also endured, notably those of big business regulation and foreign policy; his administration was in many ways a curtain raiser on our own era, both domestically and internationally. Particularly relevant to our own time is Roosevelt’s wrestling with the problem of power; on this theme of power Professor Blum has based his narrative.

Sensible enough to recognize the inevitability of bigness in business (and in labor and government as well), Roosevelt distinguished between “good” and “bad” big business. To keep business hewing to the path of virtue, he put his faith in the administrative commission. But would the administrative commission, of which the Interstate Commerce Commission was the first of many, be more moral in the exercise of power than the businessmen themselves or the judiciary whose job was to interpret the laws? Roosevelt felt that the saving element in the administrative commission was the “expert,” who could arrive at decisions that were relatively uninfluenced by political pressures and more in keeping with the realities of a situation as appraised by an informed and impartial mind. It was Roosevelt’s hope, and to some extent his belief, that politics would stop short at the administrative commission’s door.

Mr. Blum perhaps fails to see Roosevelt’s faith in the wisdom and impartiality of the expert as a typically patrician solution to the problem of power and partisanship in American democracy. Roosevelt thought of the patrician class from which he derived as above and aloof from the contending forces of labor and capital; and as birth and breeding raised the patrician above the battle, so did knowledge elevate and make impartial the specialists. Whether Roosevelt’s faith has been justified depends, of course, upon one’s judgment of the role of administrative commissions in the last fifty years.

In foreign policy, on the other hand, not the mediating expert but naked power decided for Roosevelt. He was convinced that world peace and world order could best be served by the strong nations policing the weak, and by a power balance among the strong nations resulting in temporary stability; he looked to manifest destiny rather than international arbitration to resolve the great questions of world politics.

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Seeking to serve the good society (“But what is ‘good’?” as Morris R. Cohen used to ask), Roosevelt repeatedly compromised his goals (which moreover were highly personal and subjective) in the interests of his career. There are a number of reasons why he assumed the leadership of the Progressive movement, but more than anything else it was a power tantrum. Because Mr. Blum has followed the thread of the power theme through the mass of Roosevelt materials, he has not fallen into the error of some earlier biographers who offered two Roosevelts to the reader: Roosevelt the President, and the later, more radical Roosevelt of the Bull Moose movement. Actually, Roosevelt’s radicalism—a belief in greater governmental control of the large unit in industry and labor—was of the sort that Frank Munsey, the millionaire publisher, Thomas Perkins, a Morgan partner, and Andrew Carnegie (who tried to dissuade Roosevelt from becoming a candidate in 1912, but went along with the principle that increased governmental control was inevitable) were able to endorse.

Roosevelt was no radical. But I am dubious of the reasons Mr. Blum advances for calling him a conservative: his belief in consolidation, control, administrative efficiency in government, and his failure to acknowledge happiness as a political goal. Mr. Blum argues further that these so-called conservative values were upheld by the businessmen of the time. I wish he had given us his footnotes here, because I know of no definitive study of businessmen’s attitudes in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, let alone one that would justify such a conclusion.

Actually, the characteristics of Roosevelt’s conservatism, as Mr. Blum gives them, belong to no one American political tradition but more or less to all. I should agree that Theodore Roosevelt was a conservative, but less because of his identification with the business elite than because of his patrician heritage, whose roots go back politically to the Federalists and socially to the pre-industrial merchant capitalists and gentry. After all, the prophet of competition, control, and strenuous efficiency in government was Roosevelt’s fellow patrician, Brooks Adams, whose Law of Civilization and Decay Roosevelt reviewed approvingly at length (though he demurred from its gloomy conclusion). Similarly, a model of Roosevelt’s ideal administrative commissioner might easily have been Charles Francis Adams, of the Adamses, and his work on the Massachusetts Railroad Commissioners Board. In the introduction by Brooks Adams to The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma in 1920, we can see how many of Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas have been a part of patrician thought since the time George Washington made his unique contribution to American administrative practice. More than a trace of this patrician heritage was apparent in Franklin Roosevelt, not only in his personality but also in his conception of the proper relation of government and business.

But so good a book as The Republican Roosevelt should not be judged by its difficulties in dealing with the knottiest problem of our historical heritage—the nature of American conservatism. A practitioner of the newer political history, Mr. Blum has given us a fine example of an approach to politics that is no longer content with the older emphasis on bare and unelucidated political fact, but draws on psychology and sociology as well. His brief book recreates Roosevelt and the problems of his era where longer and more detailed portraits have failed.

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