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February 1998
Volume 16, Number 2

Bully in the Pulpit
William Anderson

In recent months, we have been inundated with a pro-Teddy Roosevelt barrage from PBS to the Weekly Standard. He was, writes David Brooks, "a distinctly American kind that married nationalism to individualism." His bust adorns the desks of Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole. His profile is carved into Mount Rushmore.

In fact, the Roosevelt legacy is not individualism; it is certainly not liberty. His continuing legacy is one of unprecedented government intervention. Roosevelt crushed property rights. He constructed huge public works projects. He also helped lead the U.S. into its disastrous slide into imperialism and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in numerous foreign conflicts (and millions of foreigners). In reality, the leviathan state in all its evil owes much to TR.

After the early years of an up-and-down political career, McKinley appointed the upstart Republican as assistant secretary of the Navy (1897), from where he helped agitate for war with Spain. Democrats, who then were the party of states rights and free enterprise (until they were hijacked by TR's distant cousin 30 years later), were generally against such a war.

Although McKinley originally opposed attacking Spain, Roosevelt attempted to undermine his boss, declaring to his friends that the president "has the backbone of a chocolate eclair." When McKinley led the country into war after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor supposedly by Spain (although studies of the wreck found that the explosion came not from a Spanish mine but from within the ship), Roosevelt resigned his position to form a regiment called the "Rough Riders."

Having helped start an unjustifiable war, Roosevelt now sought to find fame in the conflict. The regiment which he formed is best known for its charge against the pathetically equipped Spanish on San Juan Hill in Cuba.

The war whetted Roosevelt's desire for power, and upon coming home as a self-proclaimed war hero, he was elected governor of New York, a position he held for only two years. In 1900, over the objections of many high Republican officials, McKinley tabbed Roosevelt as his running mate, and the pair easily won the presidential election. While conservatives hoped that TR would disappear into the vice presidency, the 1901 assassination of McKinley placed the power-hungry politician in the White House.

Although Roosevelt promised not to rush into a progressive agenda, his character quickly overwhelmed his assurances to the Republicans. In 1902, he ordered the U.S. Justice Department to enter antitrust proceedings against John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company. While the move was politically popular--and Roosevelt the "trustbuster" still garners the praise of leftist historians--it had no economic justification whatsoever.

Standard Oil had become the single dominant producer of oil not because it had used coercion, but rather because it was by far the most efficient petroleum firm in the world. Furthermore, by the time the government took action, Standard's market share had already begun to fall, as other producers followed Rockefeller's lead in making their operations more efficient. Those facts meant nothing to Roosevelt, however, who was looking to further his reputation at the expense of U.S. companies, and the U.S. Supreme Court gave the president what he wanted: an order to split the giant company into smaller geographical entities.

The year 1902 was significant on other counts. First, the Justice Department also successfully sued the Northern Securities Company, a stock holding company which supposedly suppressed competition of western railroads. And note: Roosevelt's "trustbusting" always had an explicit corollary: there were "good trusts" and "bad trusts," the good ones being those politically aligned with him.

While there was no justification for the Northern Securities case, Roosevelt committed an even worse act of violence in 1902 against private property rights in his war against business owners. The United Mine Workers struck the Pennsylvania coal fields in May of that year, and six months later, with fuel supplies dwindling, the miners and owners held firm. Although Roosevelt had no legal authority to intervene, he called a conference between UMW leaders and the mine owners.

The miners agreed to arbitration, but when the owners refused, the president went into a tirade. Ignoring the U.S. Constitution, he threatened to have the U.S. Army seize the coal mines and operate them with soldiers. The owners, brutalized by the chief executive, backed down. The following March, the workers received a pay raise.

Roosevelt was not only interested in grabbing U.S. property; he also turned his bullying ways abroad. In 1902, U.S. negotiators attempted to draw a treaty with Colombia for rights to construct a canal across Panama, which then was a province of Colombia. The Colombian senate, however, rejected the treaty, sending Roosevelt into a rage. Under the aegis of the U.S., a group of Panamanians declared a new breakaway republic, and Roosevelt sent gunboats to protect its "independence." Two weeks later, the U.S. government recognized the new "nation," and shortly thereafter, digging on the socialist Panama Canal began at tremendous taxpayer expense.

After winning the election in 1904, Roosevelt became even more aggressive in attempting to establish the progressive regulatory agenda, and one of his first targets was the meat packing industry. At the turn of the century, refrigeration was rare, although the interstate meat industry had developed ice-chilled containers for trains and ships to enable companies to ship dressed meats. (Before refrigeration, meat packing companies could only ship live animals, since dressed meats would quickly spoil.)

During the Spanish-American War, meat packers shipped dressed meats to Cuba for distribution to the inland troops. After the meats were unloaded at the ports, the meat packers warned army quartermasters to keep the meat on ice, or else it would spoil. As one would expect, the arrogant quartermasters refused to listen, and sent the meat wagons into the fields. And, as one would also expect, by the time the meat reached the troops, most of the time it was spoiled.

The meat companies were accused of profiteering on rotten meat and attempting to poison the troops. Roosevelt carried this resentment to the presidency and when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, TR had his excuse to act.

Sinclair wrote his book in hopes of converting Americans to socialism, and he found a willing ally in Roosevelt. Although The Jungle was pure fiction, it resonated with the public, which was ready to believe the worst about American companies. Roosevelt, acting in the name of the public interest, ordered an investigation of the meat industry, which was delivered to him in secret later that year. However, the president refused to release the report, saying only that the contents were "devastating," and he bullied Congress into passing the Pure Food and Drug Act, which created the FDA, an agency which bedevils the country to this day.

It turned out, however, that Roosevelt had other reasons for refusing to release the report. When Sinclair visited the White House in 1906, the president remarked to him that the study contained nothing incriminating. The myth endures, unfortunately, that Roosevelt somehow "reformed" the meat industry.

Roosevelt was an ardent outdoorsman, and his actions to "preserve" American wilds led to more bad policy. He expanded the national forest system, hiring the socialist Gifford Pinchot to carry out his policies. Like other progressives, TR believed that resource markets were wasteful, and that the only way to ensure future resources was for government to take ownership and slowly dole them out over time. At the same time, he sanctioned the building of numerous dams in the West which were of questionable value (but brought him popularity with western interest groups). Also popular with timber interests were the national parks, which lessened the competition.

Unpopular with the conservatives in the Republican Party, Roosevelt did not run for another term in 1908, instead endorsing William Howard Taft. Soon after the election, TR went to Africa for an extended hunt, with his U.S. detractors wishing "health to the lions." When he returned home a year later, congressional progressives, who were shunned by Taft, sought out Roosevelt, who decided to run again for president in 1912. When he did not receive the Republican nomination, he ran as an independent on the "Bull Moose" ticket.

Free of his conservative shackles, Roosevelt ran as a radical progressive, calling for even more government intervention into the economy and championing the income tax. There was little, if any, difference between the Roosevelt platform and that of the socialist Eugene Debs.

While TR didn't win the election, his entry virtually guaranteed that Woodrow Wilson would occupy the White House, a presidency that saw the creation of the Federal Reserve, the implementation of the income tax, the direct election of senators, a blow against federalism, and, finally, America's invasion of Europe in World War I. Roosevelt's complaint against Wilson was that he didn't bring America into one of the most disastrous wars in history soon enough.

In fact, TR was so anxious to fight that he sought to form his own regiment, a scheme that Wilson forbade. But while Roosevelt was not able to be an active soldier in the war, his son, Quentin, volunteered. In 1918, his plane was shot down over France and he was killed. Roosevelt never recovered from the loss of his son in a war he had promoted.


FURTHER READING: Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 106-22.


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