Theodore Roosevelt believed that “the strenuous lifestyle” was possible. He displayed unwavering vigor, strength, fortitude and endurance throughout his life. Roosevelt was an unstoppable dynamo, from cattle ranching in the West to fighting the Spanish with Rough Riders in Cuba. His unwavering love for his country and American imagination continues to resonate with generations of conservatives. This great American statesman was also a compassionate man who cared deeply for the poorest and most vulnerable. Roosevelt’s unique mix of conservative and progressive politics was created to preserve the synergy between the strength and welfare of the American people and the republic’s institutions.
American capitalism experienced a historic transformation after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller were the leaders in transforming America into an industrial superpower with unmatched wealth and innovation. It came with a price. The cities grew quickly, becoming increasingly crowded and poor. While corporate power reached new heights, working conditions in factories became worse. The rise of corporate power and unions saw workers start to speak out. Strikes, unions, and boycotts were met with violent reactions. A variety of reformers, populists and progressives emerged to address the growing concentration of economic power and political power after the Panic in 1893.
Roosevelt emerged from this political turmoil. Roosevelt was the U.S. Civil Service Commission commissioner, New York City Police commissioner and governor of New York. He made every effort to be the leader of reform at the front. Roosevelt even took midnight walks on the beats of police officers to ensure they were on duty. Roosevelt was a prolific writer who wrote histories of the 1812 Naval War, and the development the American West. This extraordinary, active life helped Roosevelt to be William McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
Roosevelt’s meteoric rise meant that he was not suited to remain in the vice presidency office as his rivals in Republican establishment hoped. At 42 years old, Roosevelt became the youngest president of the United States. Roosevelt was determined to make his mark in the country. He officially renamed the White House as the White House and authorized the construction of the West Wing. Roosevelt’s first term was a success story in trustbusting and mediating labor relations. This led to his election victory in 1904.
Roosevelt was given a personal mandate and began pushing for regulation of working conditions and the curtailment of the power of corporations under his Square Deal. He also highlighted the work of investigative journalists or “muckrakers”, and helped to make the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act landmark pieces of social legislation in 1906. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle described what was happening at American meatpacking factories where rats, rotting meat and poisoned bait made their way into American workers’ and families’ food. This was an early indication of Roosevelt’s increasing attention to social problems, and government-led solutions.
The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children was held shortly before Roosevelt left office. Invitations were sent on Christmas Day 1908. Over 200 people attended the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which was held January 25, 1909. This included activists, court judges and heads and orphanages as well as Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and Jane Addams. One of the most pressing concerns was that widowed mothers living in poverty felt they had to send their children into orphanages to make ends meet. This meeting led to the formation of the United States Children’s Bureau, and later the Child Welfare League of America. It proved the power of the presidency’s new convening power.
William Howard Taft was Roosevelt’s protégé and successor. However, he would eventually be a source deep in dismay. Taft fired Roosevelt’s Cabinet appointees, without consulting his predecessor. This was taken as an insult. The Republican Party’s growing division between conservatives and progressives was caused by the rapid pace of reforms on railroad regulation, conservation and overhauling tariffs. While Taft was struggling, Roosevelt went on an African hunting trip, followed by a European tour, which generated massive media coverage in the United States and internationally. Roosevelt was a household name, sparking speculation about a possible return to the White House.
Fight for the New Nationalism
A divided and exhausted Republican Party was ready to face the 1910 midterm elections after Roosevelt returned from Europe. In August and September, Roosevelt went on a speaking tour to gain support and boost morale. In his quest to be the Republican leader, Roosevelt prepared his vision for a “New Nationalism”. It was clearly at odds with the Taft administration but far more radical than The Square Deal. Roosevelt, in Osawatomie (Kansas), made his call for economic and political equality that was far more aggressive than any successor.
In part inspired by Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, Roosevelt supported a variety of social reforms that would regulate labor conditions. Roosevelt’s New Nationalism had as its central goal the expansion of the American middle class. Roosevelt stated that “this great Republic” does not mean anything unless it is the triumph over a true democracy, the triumphant of popular government and, ultimately, an economic system in which every man will have the chance to show all that he has.
Roosevelt’s commitment to equality of opportunity is a solid part of the great American tradition that runs through George Washington and through Abraham Lincoln. He stressed the hand up over the handout. Roosevelt believed that individual effort was vital to his success.
It is essential that every person has the opportunity to make the most of his potential contribution to the public welfare. You will understand what I am saying there. Don’t push him up if it is not possible. Any man who falls should be helped. If he lies down, it’s a bad job to try and carry him. But if he’s a worthy man, do your best to ensure that he has a chance to prove his worth.
Conservatives are tempted to see Roosevelt’s post-presidential life as an escape from the progressive conservatism that he practiced while in office. It was actually a natural and positive evolution of his progressive conservatism. To correct the power imbalance between capital and labor, reform had to be accepted to prevent a catastrophic rupture between them that could threaten the American experiment. Burkean in his approach, he wanted the management of the change that occurred after industrialization and urbanization. As a bridge between free markets and socialist control, this meant that capitalism was regulated for the benefit all Americans.
Roosevelt was undoubtedly a centralizer of instinct but was also conservative in his desire to preserve property rights, social stability and national prestige. The modernized Hamiltonian creed envisages a strong link between the federal government and the American people, which could help the common good. Roosevelt was greatly inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s writings throughout his career in politics. Although Roosevelt’s political thinking was radical in some ways, including the idea of the judicial referendum and the Founders’ vision, he was still promoting a model for nationalism within American tradition.
Despite his efforts to reenergize Republican Party, particularly its progressive wing of the party, the midterm elections saw the Democratic Party win the House for first time since 1894. Progressive Republicans increased pressure on Roosevelt to run against Taft in 1912 for his nomination. Conservative Republicans felt alienated by their former leader, including close allies like Elihu Root. The Republican Party also felt uneasy about running for a third term, a record. Roosevelt persevered in his last major political fight of his career.
Strong as a Bull Moose
Roosevelt went to the Republican National Convention personally in order not to be outmaneuvered. He declared that he felt “like bull moose” and was quickly adopted as a symbol of Rooseveltian spirit by cartoonists, supporters, and supporters. However, it was not enough to defeat Taft’s superior party-management skills. Roosevelt accepted that the convention was rigged in Taft’s favor and withdrew from the party to form the Progressive Party. Governor Hiram Johnson was elected running mate and helped build the Progressive base within California Republican Party. This third-party movement, commonly known as the “Bull Moose Party”, became one of America’s most significant in American political history.
Roosevelt displayed his extraordinary courage on the campaign trail, when a man attempted to take his life while he was about deliver a speech at Milwaukee, Wisconsin in October 1912. Because of the thickness of his speech, the bullet could not reach his heart. John F. Schrank was his assassin. Roosevelt, who had his shirt stained, told the crowd, “Friends. I will ask you to be quiet as possible.” Although I don’t think you understand what I just did, it took more than that to kill the bull moose. It was a memorable moment in a colorful life. But Roosevelt couldn’t break the two-party system. He won 88 electoral votes from six states to push Taft into third, but couldn’t stop Woodrow Wilson winning the presidency.
Roosevelt’s record has been unmatched by any third-party candidate, and the new Progressive Party disintegrated shortly afterward as Roosevelt reconciled himself with his old party in his final years. The importance of 1912’s Bull Moose Party is not diminished. Roosevelt was able elevate his New Nationalism to a platform of progressive measures including “the preservation of home life from the hazards of sickness and irregular employment” through the adoption of a system for social insurance that is adapted to American use.
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It is not normal for an industry to return the human wreckage from its wear and tear to the community. Insurance should cover the risks of sickness, accident and invalidism as well as involuntary unemployment and old age. The employer, employee and possibly the community should all be liable for this charge.
Roosevelt’s distant Democratic cousin would eventually fulfill most of his promise by creating Social Security and the New Deal. American social insurance has seen many improvements and expansions since that time. While there are valid criticisms from conservatives about these programs’ weaknesses, a strong social insurance system is still needed and desirable. Roosevelt’s Bull Moose spirit gave the American System its social conscience at turn of century. It can be used to inspire conservatives to create a positive, ambitious agenda for social reform in modern America.
This article is part the American System series, edited by David A. Cowan. It was supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. This publication is solely the author’s responsibility.