Theodore Roosevelt, Big-Government Man

By Powell, Jim | Freeman, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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Theodore Roosevelt, Big-Government Man

Powell, Jim, Freeman

Theodore Roosevelt has been known as "the Good Roosevelt," "the Republican Roosevelt," and "the conservative Roosevelt," as distinguished from his fifth cousin Franklin, who's credited with ushering in modern American big government.

Yet promoters of big government have long recognized TR as one of their own.

Biographer Frank Freidel wrote that "While at Groton [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] first fell under the spell of his remote cousin Theodore Roosevelt. . . . Theodore Roosevelt believed in using to the utmost the constitutional power of the president. . . .This strong use of government was for the most part appealing to Franklin." During the Great Depression, FDR promoted "a program emphasizing national planning in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt." Freidel noted that "in words reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt, FDR declared 'the duty rests upon the Government to restrict incomes by very high taxes.'"

Historian Eric F Goldman said that Lyndon Johnson, who simultaneously launched huge domestic entitlement spending programs and escalated the undeclared Vietnam War, admired "the hyperactive White House of Theodore Roosevelt." LBJ reportedly remarked, "Whenever I pictured Teddy Roosevelt, I saw him running or riding, always moving, his fists clenched, his eyes glaring, speaking out."

Richard M. Nixon, who dramatically expanded federal regulation of the economy, liked Theodore Roosevelt "because of his great dynamic drive and ability to mobilize a young country."

In recent years, influential Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and John McCain have gushed with admiration for TR.

For starters, TR reinterpreted the Constitution to permit a vast expansion of executive power. "Congress, he felt, must obey the president," noted biographer Henry Pringle. Roosevelt wanted the Supreme Court to obey him too. TR ushered in the practice of ruling by executive order, bypassing the congressional process. From Lincoln to TR's predecessor William McKinley, there were 158 executive orders. TR, during his seven years in office, issued 1,007. He ranks third, behind fellow "progressives" Woodrow Wilson (1,791) and Franklin Roosevelt (3,723) in that category.

Unintended Consequences of Foreign Wars

Theodore Roosevelt, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, believed that "we should regard with contempt and loathing the Americans . . . crying on behalf of peace, peace, when there ought not to be peace." He warned against "the Menace of Peace."

When, in 1892, there was a dispute with Chile, he urged an invasion. As a lieutenant-colonel with his Rough Riders, on a ship bound for Cuba, he wrote Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: "You must get Manila and Hawaii; you must prevent any talk of peace until we get Puerto Rico and the Philippines as well as secure the independence of Cuba."

TR relished the prospect of war with Canada. In 1895, he wrote Lodge: "I don't care whether our sea coast cities are bombarded or not, we would take Canada." In a letter to his brother-in-law Will Cowles, Roosevelt said that the U.S. army would "have to employ a lot of men just as green as I am for the conquest of Canada."

As president, Roosevelt reversed the traditional U. S. foreign policy of refraining from intervention in the affairs of other nations. Intervention had been the exception, but he began to make it the rule.

TR promoted a big navy not to defend the country from a specific threat - since there wasn't any threat - but to be a tool for an expansionist foreign policy. "The primary concern of Roosevelt and his fellow-expansionists," observed historian Howard K. Beale, "was power and prestige and the naval strength that would bring power and prestige."

TR's most controversial intervention involved the seizure of the Isthmus of Panama, which had belonged to Colombia. He resolved to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans so the U.

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