By DAVID BEILSTEIN
BUT he was wrong. It seems the endowed gifts that enabled T.R.’s passion and exuberance without rival, also helped carry him into the leadership of the early 20th century progressive movement.
The greatest overall character in American history — besides maybe President Abraham Lincoln — and one of the greatest men in modern world history, Theodore Roosevelt betrayed his best instincts when the allure of utopian philosophy enraptured his large heart. It could be said Abraham Lincoln was the greater man — but T.R. was more interesting and far more entertaining.
I’m reading Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt, the final book in Morris’ outstanding trilogy beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and the middle book, Theodore Rex. Morris’ 2010 volume, Colonel Roosevelt, traces the epic final decade of the 26th President’s life, from the end of his term in 1909, until his death in 1919. The author Edmund Morris has a distinct and beautiful prose style — the sights and sounds and ambience of the T.R.’s world and experiences comes up from the page effortlessly. The best and most successful part of all these books, however, is they are written from the perspective of an unknown future. We see what myriads of characters see, confined to the past and present only, — peek-a-booing closely behind T.R. himself at each stage of his life’s journey.
In my old childhood bedroom, there is a portrait of T.R. hanging between two of the three windows. Needless to say, Theodore Roosevelt — as a man, a thinker, a writer, an amateur boxer, a hunter, — and many more things — had an immense effect upon my sense of struggle and advancement. After reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the last five years of my life were shaped much from his influence. Be the man in the arena, as it were.
Consequently, a blog entry insisting this great hero of mine was fatally wrong in a given political area, is somewhat painful. But I aim for some honesty. That said … Theodore Roosevelt was an amazing man.
And it’s hard to find so eclectic of a man … a man who wrote 40 books, spoke a handful of languages, a literary and intellectual giant, an expert naturalist, and a dotting husband and father. He could identify a plethora of species of birds by sound, alone. Could lick most amateur men in the boxing ring. Roosevelt was equally at home reading the classics, discussing them in a makeshift tent, after running more than a mile through African underbrush with a rifle chasing elephants and lions, at 51 years old. Roosevelt never faked these identities … he channeled them, became them — as sincerely as men who had grown up in those environments.
Both in love and in war, Teddy was a pure individual. He once slugged a man for being ungentlemanly outside of the Albany state house while a representative, — yet would take his first love, Alice, on long excursions in a rowboat speaking to her softly of his love for her and his romantic visions.
T.R. would come to stand for speaking softly and carrying a big stick — but felt his life was over when his first love died in his arms. And yet, though he wrote the light had gone out of his life forever in his diary following Alice’s death, T.R. had yet to become. He still faced a future preordained — of becoming governor of New York, Vice-President, and finally, due at first to an assassin’s bullet in September of 1901, the youngest U.S. President.
Earlier in his political career, T.R. pounded fist into palm for war with Spain after the sinking of the Battleship Main in 1898. Behind a desk, that is. He was Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration. But Roosevelt, knowing it is one thing to talk up a fight— quite another to fight one, enlisted. He tore together a group of men known forevermore as the Rough Riders. He was. Theodore Roosevelt was bold — bold enough for a dozen men. Bold enough and viral enough at 40 to lead a blitz up San Juan Hill, charging and shooting, his crowded hour a triumph of will — and to him, of America’s virtue and honour.
He did not so much order his troops to charge. No, T.R. beckoned his troops to follow him through a fog of gunfire. A man of privilege, Roosevelt was delighted to be out camping in the Badlands, ranching, hunting, talking to fellow cowboys who would never imagine the privileged life he had come from. He was born into New York City high society, a Roosevelt, but was home when saddling a horse as sheriff and chasing fugitives in torrential storms out west.
He once said he enjoyed life as any nine men he knew. I believe him.
But great men often have great egos … and egos have large appetites. And if appetites are not disciplined, they breed excess weight. Sometimes, a lot. It would seem throughout his presidency, the progressive tempest called Theodore Roosevelt in his sleep — the idea of a perfect and moral society embraced his core. When Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency and traversed to Africa on his safari, he saw natives whom lived in a premodern state. In T.R.’s rapidly progressive apotheosis, he suggested it was democratic government that could raise these pre-moderns into the culture and sophistication of Western civilisation.
Yet, it seems to me, T.R. did not see large philosophical presuppositions at the base of American society — about the nature of men and women, of individuality and personhood — which gave rise to America’s promise and prosperity. Government helped order this coalition of metaphysical realities, but it did not create it. In fact, it is classical liberal presuppositions, rising out of the enlightenment age, which gave particular sentiments about the nature of reality and human beings. This detailed philosophy of taking in the sump of history gave birth to a generation of men who radically limited government. In consequence, Roosevelt went the other way, blindly believing the need for the government to be paternal, a saviour of men, rather than protecting individual rights. This, sadly, is quite odd given Roosevelt’s photographic memory of history and human kind and what government does, based on larger conceptions, rather than modest duties outlined by constitutional formulations.
Likewise, Roosevelt’s view would run counter to the Founding Father’s conceptions. Men who knew, violently so, a government as paternal parent, would violate people’s individual autonomy and pursuit of happiness somewhere. Indeed, a government unleashed to moralise society, would in fact, at some point strip away the incentive for freedom in various ways, eliminating the need for private enterprise and thrift to shape culture and society. And so, the animation of society and preservation of culture must have a confine elastic enough to prove universal.
True, T.R.’s progressivism did not and would not go as far as President Woodrow Wilson, a rival. But it went far enough, sadly. Roosevelt came to believe during the hectic battle to unseat his predecessor, President William Taft, that general welfare rode rough-shot over property rights. Though hapless, President Taft did make a foundational point. That is, if Theodore Roosevelt won a third term, the Constitution would have to be revised to make way for his vision. In time, worse avenues appealed to Roosevelt’s utopianism. He began to see the need for the U.S. Constitution to be interpreted in light of the “necessities of the time” and not within their own grammatical and historical parturition. Worse. T.R. succumbed to the diseased notion the Supreme Court was a legislature, not a judicial branch. To which, then, a friend told him the court tells what the law is, they do not make the laws. T.R.’s progressive pining to see the highest court as legislature and not an interpreter of constitutional law, was exactly the kind of legal hermeneutic the south used in large extent to maintain the racist segregated South.
I must say, this is dreary business for me. Being a staunch conservative-libertarian of the William F Buckley, Jr. mold, I confess, it’s upsetting. Still, one must always remember … the business of heroes is a rough business … for all men and women — who are our heroes, are all mortals. Born and destined to die, they come and go and are often very right and very wrong. The innate passion within them kindles them to particular civil righteousness and accomplishments for the good of the few and the many; but it often drowns them in gigantic miscalculations.
Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive tilt animated from a man — a mortal man, who could not know or see or understand all things … and yet his conception of progressive government would enable a cancerous development — ruinous to individual American life in chains unable to account for the nuances and vibrancies life and experience must allow for. For oversize government, historically, chronically reduces such improvisational movement. And human life is complex and multifaceted, unable to be reduced to social science witchcraft. That’s why the centrepiece of the U.S. Constitution is individual life first — it’s protection.
While the early progressive movement paved the way for common-sense safety nets — for Americans left out in the cold, it would also be the basis of our current subjugation of liberty and individual sovereignty. T.R. thought he was right in his progressivism … but he forgot American governance is not about being right, but animating order in the midst of freedoms of diversity concerning individual life. It is not so much about a right society, but a society of libertas. America is not about perfection of life — an unobtainable goal according to the Founders, and the U.S. Constitution, but freedom and liberty for all.