President Theodore Roosevelt is famous in the West for being among the pioneers of conservation and for establishing our national park system. He saw the need to regulate the railroads and to build a navy. TR was not one to speak softly on domestic issues, and he put forward the “stewardship theory” of the presidency to justify his use of the “bully pulpit.” As we near the centennial anniversary of his 1912 “Bull Moose” run for the presidency, (against incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Democratic challenger and eventual winner Woodrow Wilson) we recall TR as a thoroughly Progressive president.
Less well known, however, is the way that TR engaged in a fundamental rethinking of our constitutional order in justifying his innovations. Jean Yarbrough, the Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College, situates TR’s accomplishments within his much more controversial rejection of natural rights theory and the principles of limited government in her new book, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition.
Yarbrough’s book participates in an important debate about the nature of Progressivism. Most historians see Progressivism as a movement embracing, in the words of one luminary, “congeries of reform which encompassed all manner of worthy causes, from conservation and corporate regulation to consumer protection and immigration restriction, from prohibition and workmen’s compensation to women’s suffrage and primary elections.” H.W. Brands, in his biography of Woodrow Wilson. No one doubts that Progressivism was at least this, but Yarbrough’s study reflects the judgment that Progressives such at TR, Woodrow Wilson, and others justified these reforms and looked at politics much differently than their political predecessors. Government would now reform in ways that were previously seen as unnecessary and improper. The genuine Progressive legacy, in Yarbrough’s view, is this rethinking and not just the reform, because the rethinking laid the groundwork for greater and greater reforming, more and more steps away from the original understanding of the Constitution.
Yarbrough demonstrates TR’s commitment to a fundamental, long-term reformation of the constitutional order through a revealing intellectual biography. She begins with the ideas TR absorbed at Harvard and Columbia during his formative education and shows how those ideas shaped his early career as a historian. These ideas germinated into a comprehensive vision for America’s constitutional future, articulated near the end of his presidency and during his quixotic 1912 campaign.
TR’s education took place as America began to build modern research universities. TR yielded to no man in his admiration for the men that made America—Washington, Hamilton and, especially, Lincoln. His education helped him address the question of what these men accomplished and why. The lens through which he viewed their accomplishments was Hegelian philosophy, with a social Darwinian hue. This was the intellectual milieu from which the research university was born.
The modern research university has been America’s most important and influential German import. The university was based on the Hegelian assumption of historical progress, which, for the Germans meant that man developed from infant beginnings to an ethical state as social conditions changed. Changes in social conditions brought with them greater possibility for the experience of individual freedom and self-consciousness. The Darwinian hue to this approach came from the fact that certain people or races developed, while others, due to social conditions or blood, did not. The modern research university was and is dedicated to the study of what social factors foster human progress and what factors inhibit it, with the aim of discovering how we can plan to bring about greater progress. During the formative years for Progressives such as TR and Wilson, race was viewed as the vehicle to understand social conditions.
TR embraced these assumptions. This put him on a collision course with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as his heroes had understood them. TR understood freedom to come from the state, not from man’s natural rights. In a democratic state, the natural rights doctrine was, in the words of John Burgess, TR’s teacher, “unscientific, erroneous and harmful.” The problem with natural rights was twofold. First, they were associated with the idea that progress comes from the spontaneous interplay of individuals pursuing their own talents, dreams and interests. History taught that such a mentality suited the frontier, but not the modern industrial society. Second, natural rights were associated with “negative liberty,” but their merely negative orientation limits our collective ability to build the state institutions necessary to change social conditions to provide for further extensions of a more positive liberty.
TR’s embrace of Hegelian Darwinism and his critique of Founding principles shaped his telling of American history. TR wrote biographies of Gouverneur Morris and the monumental Winning of the West, a history of the way that Anglo civilization spread throughout the continent. The Anglos vented their “race-supremacy” (TR’s words) in their conquest of the unfortunate, backward native cultures. In TR’s view, assimilation would have been impossible with such a backward people; coexistence would have put a limit on human progress that accompanied the spread of Anglo culture. This left only the option of the elimination of the Indians, a policy that TR considered “not only expedient, but imperative and honorable” from a “race standpoint.” The most honorable of the Founders (Washington, for instance) hoped for the greatest degree of coexistence and fair dealing with the Indians because they too were human beings with natural rights. TR thought that such an approach reflected a “warped, perverse and silly morality which would forbid a course of conquest that has turned whole continents into the seats of mighty and flourishing civilized nations.” This provides the Darwinian hue—the strongest peoples will survive—to TR’s spin on historical progress.
TR’s defense of race war jibes with his rejection of natural rights. Human beings should be judged by standards appropriate to their stage of development. Natural rights stand outside of stages of history, so it is inappropriate to use them as a standard of judgment for a candid world. We can test this. Unlike Lincoln, who saw slavery as a violation of natural rights, TR condemned slavery as an offense against the “true standards of humanity and Christianity.” The standards of humanity change with the times, while natural rights theory, as Lincoln said, set “standard maxim for a free society.”
This was the state of TR’s mind before he entered politics. Yarbrough shows that TR’s political career reflects a gradual working out of these fundamental ideas. Let us look at two of TR’s chief policy concerns, beginning with his hope to regulate railroads. One might see regulation of the railroads as an incremental, practical measure, as most historians do. Natural monopolies pose problems, after all, that often are consistent with public regulation in some cases, as nearly all classical economists concede. In 1887, Congress established the Interstate Commerce Commission, charged with the task of investigating and taking evidence on the question of whether railroad rates were “reasonable and just.” If, in its judgment, railroads abused their natural monopoly, evidence would be turned over to the Attorney General for prosecution of the railroad in front of an independent judiciary. While this process was slow and suffered a few setbacks in its early years, TR’s Attorney General used it to prosecute the Northern Securities case early in his presidency. This approach to a clear public policy problem worked within the confines of the separation of powers system, with the ultimate prosecutorial authority resting in political appointees and the ultimate judgment resting with constitutional officers in the judiciary.
Yet TR was dissatisfied with the adversarial nature of this approach and longed for a new one. He embraced the idea that a new regulatory agency, staffed with independent experts, would set rate structures, pay, and hours for those working in railroads. Regulation had to be taken out of political hands, and put in the hands of a new ethical elite, possessing the knowledge to set rates and the righteousness to do it objectively (without being captured by the industry or its opponents). TR longed for a regulatory agency beyond the scope of the separation of powers system. Decision-makers of his ICC would not be political appointees and they would not prosecute cases in front of constitutional officers. Instead, they would occupy a space beyond politics and beyond the accountability of the checks and balances. They would be administrators.
No people, TR boomed, could “permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially wealth in its corporate form,” unless a “higher power” (i.e., government) controlled it. TR had high hopes. He eventually put forward a new standard: private owners could keep control of their property so long as their ownership provided “great services to the community as a whole.” “We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows,” TR boomed in his “New Nationalism” speech in 1912.
The new regulatory regime provided an opportunity for the “moral regeneration of business.” TR envisioned a business elite concerned more about the public good than profits or money. No longer would the governed simply act to regulate competing economic interests; government would aim at assisting business in transcending economics in the direction of disinterested service to the community. As Yarbrough argues, “Roosevelt’s mistake was to assume that regulation could effect a transformation of human nature, moving men and women beyond selfish individualism and uniting them across class lines.” Government would now be concerned with “the things of the soul,” as TR announced in his Inaugural Address.
Much the same can be said of TR’s concern with conservation. There is a philosophy of limited government conservationism, which could emphasize striking a balance between private ownership and public concern, through political channels. That was not TR’s notion of conservation. First, TR’s conservation was part of his critique of natural rights theory; he insisted on state-directed management practices as opposed to the “waste and inefficiency of private ownership.” Private ownership equals waste; public control equals wise use. What is more, the management would have to be conducted outside the political process by experts infused with knowledge of the public good and the technical knowledge to realize it. Only TR and his chosen appointees could be counted on to bring this about because Congress was too tethered to local interests and prejudices.
TR concluded that his conservation efforts were of fundamental importance in changing the nature of public opinion. “The whole standpoint of the people toward the proper aim of government,” TR wrote, “toward the relation of property toward the citizen, and the relation of property to the government, were brought out first by this conservation work.” TR sought to redefine property rights (into something granted by the government) and therewith rearrange the citizen’s relation to government, and conservation provided what Yarbrough sees as “an open-ended agenda capable of indefinite expansion.”
All of this is to demonstrate TR’s great innovation, an innovation articulated also by his 1912 opponent, Woodrow Wilson. It seemed to represent a new consensus in American politics. These Progressive principles amounted to a new Constitution laid on top of the old Constitution. The loadstars of this new constitution were expert administrative control, as opposed to political control, erasing the limits placed on the national government in light of new historical circumstances, redefining property as fundamentally public as opposed to private and an aspiration to infuse the country with a spirit of disinterestedness and patriotism (the New Nationalism, TR would later call it) as opposed to the spirit of self-interest rightly understood. All of these principles contradicted the American Founding and its spirit; all of them are integral parts of the modern Progressive state.
Yarbrough is convincing in showing that these Progressive aspirations amounted to a redefinition of America’s constitutional order. Progressive emphasis on administrative control runs counter to the separation of powers. Progressive emphasis on the spirit of experimentalism and on erasing the limits on government runs counter to the idea that the national government is one of “few and defined” powers (as James Madison had put it in the Federalist Papers). Progressive emphasis on the public granting of rights runs counter to the Founder’s faith in the self-evident truths of natural rights. Yarbrough provides a stark contrast between America’s original Constitution and the new Progressive constitutional principles at nearly every critical juncture of her book. In reaching this conclusion, she does nothing but take TR’s and Woodrow Wilson’s words at face value.
Yet her treatment of this fundamental issue is not entirely satisfying, for she does not raise the issue that should concern all citizens: Which conception of government is correct? Was the Progressive revision genuine progress or a false and dangerous hope? Yarbrough seems to find the Progressive’s Constitution inferior; however, she does not lay bare the basis for that judgment with sufficient clarity or force. Her conclusion concerns the “heirs” to TR—how his complex legacy continues today—not how he errs.
With this in mind, let me conclude with a few observations which I wish Yarbrough would have included in her conclusion. I am sure that I say nothing that Prof. Jean Yarbrough does not know better than I. The whole debate between the Progressives and the Founders concerns the question of whether human nature changes. Progressives hope for such a change, thinking that some people, at least, embody a pure public spirit, know the public good and possess the technical knowledge to realize the public good. Progressives seek to invest such people with sufficient power to realize our public good and improve our lives. Administrative experts will pick winners and losers in industry, set prices, regulate our mortgages and shape our insurance packages, all with a disinterested spirit of public service. The Founders doubt there are such people or that there is such knowledge, so they are willing to rely on the political process in a representative government to make judgments about what government should do.
Wisdom about the public good is not, for the American Founders, a matter of technical knowledge; the public good is difficult to know (though many claim to know it) and difficult for people to identify (amidst all human errors). These truths about human affairs led the American Founders to construct a complex system where every proposal for public policy must pass by majorities in several bodies. This deliberative sense was, in their view, the best guarantor for wise public policy possible in human affairs. The separation of powers may be slow and messy, but it is more consistent with the potential of the human mind than the Progressive hope that administrative experts would implement the public good apart from politics.
There is another aspect to the Founder’s good sense. The American Founders thought that government operates most effectively in certain areas (national defense, building infrastructure, regulating and removing barriers to interstate commerce), while efforts to exceed these powers leads to a more ineffective, less respected government. The attempt to determine railroad rates, for instance, would, in their view, be poorly done and lead to the collapse of the railroad industry. Attempts to set wages and working hours would lead industries either to collapse or become dependent on continued government succor. Since there were things beyond the competence of a government, the American Founders left things beyond the competence of government. TR and his Progressive compatriots do not, in principle, believe in the idea that there are things beyond the competence of government. They thought this because they believed that some people, at least, would possess wisdom and righteousness enough to know and implement the public good.
Yarbrough’s analysis forces several observations on us, the chief of which is this: Faith in government has declined as Progressive political practice has progressed and the effectiveness of government has declined in all spheres as Progressive practice has ossified in our current institutions. Wise, objective administrators are, perhaps, not so wise and objective as TR hoped, and the problems with this manifest themselves the wider their range of discretion becomes. Perhaps that is an indication the Founder’s judgments are worth much more than TR thought. Perhaps our problem is not too little public control, but too much; perhaps too much of our governing regime grows beyond the consent of the governed.
We live under two Constitutions. The Progressive Constitution has been laid upon the Founder’s Constitution. The apparatus of the administrative state lays over the separation of powers regime. The creative tension that exists between the two may be the source of our current discontents or, as is more likely, the assumptions on which our progressive state rests are being severely challenged as it reaches maturity. Perhaps America is beginning to reevaluate the wisdom of those Progressive assumptions. It is Jean Yarbrough’s great accomplishment to bring these ideas to the fore as we consider our present discontents.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.