08 December 2010

A word from Theodore Roosevelt

From his biography of Oliver Cromwell:

Free government is only for nations that deserve it; and they lose all right to it by licentiousness, no less than by servility. If a nation cannot govern itself, it makes comparatively little difference whether its inability springs from a slavish and craven distrust of its own powers, or from sheer incapacity on the part of its citizens to exercise self-control and to act together. Self-governing freemen must have the power to accept necessary
compromises, to make necessary concessions, each sacrificing somewhat of prejudice, and even of principle, and every group must show the necessary subordination of its particular interests to the interests of the community as a whole. When the people will not or cannot work together; when they permit groups of extremists to decline to accept anything that does not coincide with their own extreme views; or when they let power slip from their hands through sheer supine indifference; then they have themselves chiefly to blame if the power is
grasped by stronger hands.

This quote could be used to criticize both those liberal Democrats who condemn President Obama's compromise with Republicans on the extension of tax cuts and the refusal of compromise by Republicans that forced capitulation on a question of fiscal discipline and deficit reduction. Roosevelt wrote it at a time of relatively loose ideology and meant it to be relevant not only to 17th century Britain but to all nations at all times. Before long he would provoke a showdown in his own party, played out in a general election campaign, that arguably contributed to an eventual hardening of ideological battle lines across the country. In doing so, he launched the century's most formidable challenge to the two-party system, outpolling a major party candidate who was the incumbent President.

I've been interested in Theodore Roosevelt for a while, and my interest is growing as the centennial of the 1912 campaign draws closer. I recently picked up Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt, the conclusion of his biographical trilogy, but right now I'm reading a volume from two years ago, Joshua David Hawley's Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. At the time of publication, Hawley was a clerk for Chief Justice Roberts, who goes strangely unmentioned by name in the usual author's blurb, as if Yale University Press feared that the book would be dismissed as a conservative polemic if Hawley's association with Roberts were made clear. Hawley proves a fair-minded critic of what he takes to be Roosevelt's animating beliefs, noting when diverse influences and impulses resulted in a sometimes incoherent philosophy. There's much to criticize in Roosevelt's philosophy, especially a militarism apparently rooted in a desire to redeem the family's reputation after his father's failure to fight in the Civil War. Even then, he deserves credit for walking the walk while talking the talk. He agitated for war with Spain while assistant secretary of the navy, and once he got his wish, he resigned to enlist in the military. Pushing sixty, he wanted to fight in World War I, but was denied the privilege by Woodrow Wilson. His militarism may simply be an extension of Roosevelt's defining attitude, as described by Hawley -- his belief that individuals proved their moral character by public acts as well as by private conduct. For Roosevelt, public service was a moral duty. The businessman proved his morality by the way he conducted his business, and could not measure success solely by his profits. The politician proved his by demonstrating integrity in office, and could not measure success solely by getting elected. Everyone was accountable to everyone else, if not also to God. That meant that businessmen as well as laborers were accountable to the nation if their business practices or their work stoppages hurt the rest of the country. As a Progressive, Roosevelt is sometimes seen today as an unsavory progenitor of modern statist liberalism, but he could never be considered a man of the "left," because he did not assume that Labor was always right. But while many of his attitudes would be considered extremely conservative today, he can't be ranked with the "right," either, because he didn't assume that Capital was always right. Who did that leave? Critics might say that left Roosevelt himself, a power-mad egotistical know-it-all, but while he believed that great leaders played important roles in history, he also believed, as he wrote in the Cromwell book, that a leader's success, or his descent into corruption or tyranny, depended on the quality of his fellow citizens.

In the future, I'll have more to say about Roosevelt as I finish Hawley, pick up Morris, and look again through collections of Roosevelt's letters and speeches. He hasn't been President in more than a century, but he remains a relevant voice today, so long as many of the issues he raised remain unresolved. If some people think that our troubles began with Roosevelt, it may be just as likely that we'll find some of the solutions in his thoughts on politics and government.

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