TR and the Modern Presidency

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Theodore Roosevelt and the Modern Presidency

by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.


According to the Associated Press, all the presidential candidates see themselves in Theodore Roosevelt. (Well, all but one, but you know the routine by now.)

This is precisely the problem. Theodore Roosevelt is responsible for devising and putting into action the philosophy of the presidency to which all modern presidents have subscribed. That isn’t a compliment.

With polls of historians classifying TR among the “near great” and political aspirants in both parties eagerly positioning themselves squarely within his model of governance, the prima facie case that the Rough Rider must have been a villain is pretty strong. Look closely at his record and that instinct is confirmed.

What follows here originally appeared in Reassessing the Presidency, John Denson’s edited volume from 2001. More about Teddy and his real history can be found in my new book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask.

In 1896, Brooks Adams wrote a book called The Law of Civilization and Decay. Like most late-nineteenth-century commentators, he believed that his country was nearing a watershed in its history. But unless America rallied around a strong leader, the center of world power, which he thought might be about to shift from England to the United States, would shift instead to Russia. In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt – who read Adams’s book with interest – would prove to be this leader, invigorating the executive branch in both the domestic and the foreign arenas. In so doing, he became the first modern president.

Roosevelt was well suited for this role. Philosophically he was the consummate Progressive, determined to bring efficiency and coordinated intelligence to bear against the trusts, against despoilers of the natural environment, and against international disorder. He was, as one historian put it, “the first great president-reformer of the modern industrial era.” [1] He therefore had little patience with federalism and indeed with most of the constitutional impediments that stood between him and the construction of a new American state. Politically he was a committed nationalist. He thus could barely bring himself to speak of Thomas Jefferson, whom he loathed; and as late as the 1880s he was still condemning Jefferson Davis as a traitor. The Confederate cause, since it denied that a large consolidated nation was its own justification, enraged him. Roosevelt brought to the presidential office a thorough and consistent philosophy of the presidency. What a previous president may have done hesitatingly or without fanfare, Theodore Roosevelt made a matter of principle. He deserves credit for innovation even, paradoxically enough, in cases in which he was exercising an executive prerogative that one of his recent predecessors had in fact pioneered.

Presidential scholar Edward Corwin has spoken of the “personalization of the presidency,” by which he means that the accident of personality has played a considerable role in shaping the office. And indeed it is hard to think of a stronger personality than that of Theodore Roosevelt who ever served as president. One presidential scholar observed that Roosevelt gave the office “the absorbing drama of a Western movie.” [2] And no wonder. Mark Twain, who met with the president twice, declared him “clearly insane.” In a way, Roosevelt set the tone for his public life to come at age twenty, when, after an argument with his girlfriend, he went home and shot and killed his neighbor’s dog. [3] He told a friend in 1884 that when he donned his special cowboy suit, which featured revolver and rifle, “I feel able to face anything.” [4] When he killed his first buffalo, he “abandoned himself to complete hysteria,” as historian Edmund Morris put it, “whooping and shrieking while his guide watched in stolid amazement.” His reaction was similar in 1898 when he killed his first Spaniard. [5]

He loathed inactivity. At one point during the 1880s he wrote to a friend that he had been working so hard lately that for the next month he was going to do nothing but relax – and write a life of Oliver Cromwell. Henry Adams said that

all Roosevelt’s friends know that his restless and combative energy was more than abnormal. Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter – the quality that medieval theology assigned to God – he was pure act. [6]

One of his sons is said to have remarked, “Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” [7]

Bringing such a personality to the presidency, Roosevelt increased very significantly the visibility of the office and the popular fascination with the person of the president. One presidential historian explained it this way:

As no president in memory and probably none up to that time, Theodore Roosevelt became a “personality” – a politician whose every action seemed newsworthy and exciting. His family, his friends, his guests, his large teeth, his thick glasses, his big game hunting, and his horseback riding – all were sources of media attention and delight. In a way that Washington and Lincoln had not done, and even Jackson avoided, Theodore Roosevelt became a very visible tribune of the people, a popular advocate whose personality seemed immediate, direct, and committed to their personal service. [8]

The modern tendency to micromanage even affairs that clearly belong to the care of civil society, to refer even the most trivial issues to the discretion of the executive, with the implicit presumption against the ability of individuals and intermediate bodies to manage their affairs, also finds substantial precedent in the Roosevelt administration. The classic example occurred in 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt assembled athletic personnel from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale at the White House to reform the rules of college football to make the game safer. The 1903 season had witnessed several dozen deaths from excessively rough play. Roosevelt’s small convocation was a minor incident, to be sure, but it was the first step in a long series by which the presidency would assume an aggressive and visible presence in the life of the nation, and by which the American people would grow accustomed to entrusting to the person of the executive even the most trivial aspects of everyday affairs.

This was the kind of energy and vigor that Theodore Roosevelt brought to his office and that he used to promote his distinct philosophy of the presidency. “There inheres in the presidency more power than in any other office in any great republic or constitutional monarchy of modern times,” Roosevelt once remarked. But far from deploring this state of affairs, he went on to say, “I believe in a strong executive; I believe in power.” [9] “I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands,” He argued elsewhere, “provided the holder does not keep it for more than a certain, definite time, and then returns it to the people from whom he sprang.” [10]

He agreed with Andrew Jackson, who had argued that the president, by virtue of his election by the nation as a whole, possessed a unique claim to be the representative of all American people. Each member of the executive branch, but especially the president, “was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people,” he maintained. He could, therefore, “do anything that the needs of the nation demanded” unless expressly prohibited in the Constitution. “Under this interpretation of executive power, I did and caused to be done many things not previously done. . . . I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.” [11]

The cry of “executive usurpation” had hounded Andrew Jackson during the 1830s when he attempted to put a similar theory of the presidency into practice. “What effrontery!” John C. Calhoun had exclaimed in response to the suggestion that the president was “the immediate representative of the American people.” “[T]he American people are not represented in a single department of the Government,” Calhoun insisted; “the people of these States [are] united in a constitutional compact . . . forming distinct and sovereign communities,” and therefore, “no such community or people, as the American people, taken in the aggregate [exists].” [12] Calhoun was characteristically perceptive when he pondered why Jackson would put forth such a theory.

But why all this solicitude on the part of the president to place himself near to the people, and to push us off to the greatest distance? Why this solicitude to make himself their sole representative, their only guardian and protector, their only friend and supporter? The object cannot be mistaken. It is preparatory to farther hostilities – to an appeal to the people; and is intended to to [sic] prepare the way in order to transmit to them his declaration of war against the Senate, with a view to enlist them as his allies in the war which he contemplates waging against this branch of the Government. [13]

Calhoun’s remark applies equally well to Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, as we shall see, convinced he was doing the will of the people and what was best for the country, did not hesitate to disregard the Senate or the Congress as a whole. He honestly believed himself to be doing the people’s will, and his solemn responsibility to see that will vindicated overrode concerns regarding the separation of powers. He remarked privately that in the United States,

as in any nation which amounts to anything, those in the end must govern who are willing actually to do the work of governing; and insofar as the Senate becomes a merely obstructionist body it will run the risk of seeing its power pass into other hands. [14]

Roosevelt’s innovations in the area of domestic policy were more subtle than those he introduced in foreign affairs. Previous presidents, following both American tradition and the spirit of the Constitution, had not entered office with an extensive legislative program whose passage they vigorously prosecuted. They deferred instead to Congress, the branch which, it was generally understood, was to retain the initiative in such matters. But Roosevelt found a certain virility in bold leadership, and in situations in which decisive action seemed called for he considered deference to Congress or to other legal restraints on executive power as a sign of pusillanimity and decadence. He wrote in his Autobiography:

In theory the Executive has nothing to do with legislation. In practice as things now are, the Executive is or ought to be peculiarly representative of the people as a whole. As often as not the action of the Executive offers the only means by which the people can get the legislation they demand and ought to have. Therefore a good executive under the present conditions of American political life must take a very active interest in getting the right kind of legislation, in addition to performing his executive duties with an eye single to the public welfare. [15]

Although the political parties of Roosevelt’s day, as in our own, shared a great deal in common, political discourse in the United States was still fluid enough that matters of real import were still discussed within the halls of Congress. Thus Senator Isidor Rayner, aghast at Roosevelt’s approach, remarked in 1906:

Here we were day after day struggling with questions of constitutional law, as if we really had anything to do with their settlement, laboring under the vain delusion that we had the right to legislate; that we were an independent branch of the Government; that we were one department, and the Executive another, each with its separate and well-defined distinctions, imagining these things, and following a vision and a mirage, while the president was at work dominating the legislative will, interposing his offices into the law-making power, assuming legislative rights to a greater extent than if he were sitting here as a member of this body; dismembering the Constitution, and exercising precisely and identically the same power and control as if the Constitution had declared that the Congress shall pass no law without the consent of the president; adopting a system that practically blends and unites legislative and executive functions, a system that prevailed in many of the ancient governments that have forever gone to ruin, and which today still obtains in other governments, the rebellious protests of whose subjects are echoing over the earth, and whose tottering fabrics I hope are on the rapid road to dissolution. [16]

The annual presidential message read to Congress in December 1905 – the “State of the Union,” having fallen into disuse since Jefferson’s tenure, would be revived by Woodrow Wilson – contained a lengthy plea from Roosevelt for a series of regulatory legislation. The significance of Roosevelt’s program was not lost on his political opponents. The New York World, a Democratic newspaper, called it “the most amazing program of centralization that any president of the United States has ever recommended.” [17] One disgruntled commentator remarked after the legislation was passed that Roosevelt’s policies betrayed “a marked tendency toward the centralization of power in the United States and a corresponding decrease in the old-time sovereignty of the states, or of the individual.” [18]

Roosevelt’s top legislative achievements, such as the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Hepburn Act, reflect the president’s confidence in expert commissions and, more broadly, his stewardship theory of the executive branch. As one scholar put it, these acts, taken together, “might well be considered as marking the birth of the modern regulatory state.” [19] Not everyone was especially sanguine at this prospect. One conservative Republican observed that the president was “consciously, or unconsciously . . . trying to concentrate all power in Washington, to practically wipe out state lines, and to govern the people by commissions and bureaus.” [20]

It is fashionable in historical circles to describe Roosevelt as a conservative because he advocated domestic reform in large part simply to keep at bay more radical initiatives. [21] So, for example, he called for legislation to regulate the railroads in order to counter calls for outright nationalization. Historians of the New Left have gone even further, arguing that since big business itself frequently played a role in agitating for and even shaping the emerging regulatory apparatus, the ostensible effort by Roosevelt and his successors to rein in business interests was a sham. New Left scholars have, indeed, added a necessary corrective to the previously existing literature, and their claims certainly hold water in such obvious cases as the Federal Reserve System. The Fed, which, while perhaps still not as centralized as some bankers may have wanted, clearly served bankers’ interests by socializing risk and by helping to coordinate the inflationary policies of member banks, thereby reducing the risk of runs. [22]

But it is too hasty to conclude from this that all regulation, even when corporate interests themselves may have played a role in its passage, ultimately works to the benefit of big business. That a government–business alliance characterized the emerging American regime at the turn of the century is beyond dispute; but New Left historians fail to acknowledge that the state always maintained the upper hand in this partnership. The New Left critique stems partially from the fact that its partisans would have been satisfied with nothing short of nationalizing or dismantling large interests; and from such a perspective Roosevelt can indeed seem the reactionary.

The battle over railroad regulation and the Interstate Commerce Commission provides a good example of the shortcomings of this thesis. Roosevelt supported further railroad regulation in addition to that already on the books, and ultimately signed the Hepburn Act of 1906 – which, while not as radical as what he had sought, he considered satisfactory. The Act increased the number of members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and gave it the authority to set “just and reasonable” rail rates. Whatever rates the Commission decided upon were to take effect immediately. Although the railroads had a right to appeal to the courts, the burden of proof rested on them and not on the Commission.

The results were devastating. In a book that earned the Columbia University Prize in American Economic History in 1971, Albro Martin described the situation in detail. His thesis, stated simply, is that Roosevelt’s Hepburn Act, combined with subsequent regulatory enactments – in particular William Howard Taft’s Mann–Elkins Act of 1910 – deprived the railroads of the rate increases they needed, an especially debilitating handicap in an inflationary atmosphere. The railroads needed investment capital following the reorganizations of the 1890s if they were to preserve their capital stock, to rebuild, and to modernize. In other words, they needed to be left alone. Instead they got policies that both increased labor costs and refused the rate increases they needed. The result was that by 1911 profits had vanished, and the collapse of the system of private management of the railroads followed soon afterwards. [23]

One historian who concedes that railroad regulation ultimately proved destructive attempts to exonerate Roosevelt by claiming that the president had wanted a Commission that would be fair rather than punitive; but Roosevelt can hardly be held blameless for having adopted, uncritically, the standard Progressive faith in the disinterested rationality and overall benevolence of expert commissions. [24] Indeed, Roosevelt never bothered to explain how the granting of rate-setting power to a board of supposed experts who were completely divorced from the actual operation and ownership of the railroads, and for whom rational economic calculation was therefore impossible, could have yielded anything but arbitrary decrees.

This arbitrariness, this apparent belief that seeing vindication of his iron will was an adequate substitute for a sober assessment of a situation, was a central feature of Roosevelt’s personality, and it appears time and again in his dealings with big business. Unlike some Progressives, whom he dubbed “the lunatic fringe,” Roosevelt did not consider business concentration a trend to be avoided or reversed. He saw it as an inevitable and even beneficial development of industrial society, albeit one that had to be regulated in the public interest. It is also true that Roosevelt’s reputation as a trustbuster has been exaggerated; historians rightly point out that the Taft administration initiated twice as many antitrust suits in its one term than Roosevelt did in his two. But at issue here is not so much whether Roosevelt was especially severe in this or that area, or whether he was an outright radical. The question is whether he dealt justly with the private sector, what kind of precedents he set for the future, and how he helped to strengthen the executive beyond what the framers had envisioned.

In early 1902, Roosevelt ordered Attorney General Philander Knox to file an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that had taken over two railroads that stretched from Seattle to St. Paul, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. [25] This is the case that almost single-handedly earned Theodore Roosevelt his trust-busting reputation; but again, in a desperate effort to portray Roosevelt as judicious and moderate, most historians have belittled its significance. Roosevelt himself pinpointed its importance:

From the standpoint of giving complete control to the National Government over big corporations engaged in interstate business, it would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the Northern Securities decision and of the decisions afterward rendered in line with it in connection with the other trusts whose dissolution was ordered. The success of the Northern Securities case definitely established the power of the government to deal with all great corporations. [26]

The decision at last overthrew what he called the “vicious doctrine” of the E.C. Knight case of 1895, which had severely limited the scope of the Sherman Act. In that case, the Supreme Court had ruled that, although the American Sugar Refining Company held about 95 percent of the American sugar market after buying the E.C. Knight Company, they had committed no actionable offense since they had done nothing, strictly speaking, to restrain trade. “This decision,” Roosevelt said with some satisfaction, “I caused to be annulled by the court that had rendered it.” [27] The argument that Northern Securities was neither restraining trade nor preventing other lines from providing transportation along the same route – an argument its architects had been led to believe, on the basis of the precedent in Knight, the federal government would consider unimpeachable – suddenly no longer held water.

Before advising Philander Knox to initiate the case, Roosevelt neglected to ask himself some fairly obvious questions. For one thing, did the new holding company in fact substitute a monopolistic arrangement for a previously existing state of competition? In fact, it did not. The Great Northern and the Northern Pacific may have appeared to be two alternative lines between St. Paul and Seattle, but in fact, as Balthasar Henry Meyer points out, price wars between the two lines were a thing of the past, and for twenty years the railroads had lived in “comparative peace.” “It was assumed that competition had been stifled without first asking the question whether competition had actually existed; and whether, if competition could be perpetuated, the public would profit by it.” [28] According to Dominick Armentano,

Both railways had maintained joint rates, and the consequent backloading and even flow of freight realized from such arrangements had increased the efficiency and economy of each line, and allowed a generally low level of rates that would have bankrupted other roads.

The idea for the holding company originated partly from a desire to put the arrangement on a more stable footing and partly from concerns surrounding the designs of E.H. Harriman, who in early 1901 had tried to get a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific. In a mere four days, its common stock rose from $144 to over $1000 per share. The holding company would put both rails beyond the reach of Harriman, and, thus, prevent him from undermining the economic advantages that obtained from the close relationship that existed between the two lines. Naturally, these advantages paid dividends to the consumer: rail rates declined on the Hill–Morgan lines between November 1901, when the Northern Securities Company was incorporated, and 1903. There had been a chance, following Knight, that the arbitrariness of the antitrust laws might to some degree be mitigated; Roosevelt helped ensure that they would continue to be leveled against corporations that simplistic, static models deemed monopolistic but which nearly always brought benefits to the consumer.

In domestic affairs, then, Roosevelt greatly accelerated the process by which the executive became the de facto originator of legislation, and in other ways, such as his increasing use of executive commissions, set in motion a trend toward presidential supremacy. As Forrest McDonald explains in his own study of the presidency, “Roosevelt’s showmanship in pretending to be the fountain of reform legislation transformed the expectations Americans had for their presidents and thus opened the door for the emergence of the legislative presidency.” [29] That his legislative record was not more impressive was not from lack of trying. But he paved the way for his successors, who would build upon Roosevelt’s foundation.

Theodore Roosevelt made even more significant contributions to the modern presidency in the area of foreign affairs. In domestic affairs, Roosevelt explained, Congress could generally be trusted to come around to the correct position. But in the conduct of foreign policy, senators, who were, as he put it, “wholly indifferent to national honor or national welfare” and “primarily concerned in getting a little cheap reputation among ignorant people,” could interfere with the conduct of an honorable course abroad. [30] “More and more,” Roosevelt declared to Congress in 1902, “the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world.” [31] The contention that Congress was the more popular branch of government and, therefore, even prescinding from the constitutional question, deserved special deference in matters of peace and war, would not have dissuaded him. He had privately called public opinion “the voice of the devil, or what is still worse, the voice of a fool,” and in a calmer moment, speaking in particular of foreign affairs, he observed that “[o]ur prime necessity is that public opinion should be properly educated.” [32] Hence, while he favored executive supremacy in all areas of governance, the need for it in foreign policy was correspondingly greater.

Roosevelt’s fascination with war is corroborated both by his own testimony and by that of those who knew him. A college friend wrote in 1885, “He would like above all things to go to war with some one. . . . He wants to be killing something all the time.” [33] Roosevelt told another friend a few years later:

Frankly I don’t know that I should be sorry to see a bit of a spar with Germany. The burning of New York and a few other sea coast cities would be a good object lesson in the need of an adequate system of coast defenses, and I think it would have a good effect on our large German population to force them to an ostentatiously patriotic display of anger against Germany. [34]

Over and over again Roosevelt insisted that the country “needed” a war. “He gushes over war,” wrote the philosopher William James,

as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves, and treats peace as a condition of blubberlike and swollen ignobility, fit only for huckstering weaklings, dwelling in gray twilight and heedless of the higher life. . . . One foe is as good as another, for aught he tells us. [35]

One of the top scholars of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy has explained that the Rough Rider “sought a big navy because it would prevent war, but also because it was such fun to have a big navy.” [36]

So attached was Roosevelt to the issues of national readiness and the martial virtues that after leaving office, Roosevelt suggested adapting some of the wartime model to the needs of peacetime. He became an advocate of “universal obligatory military training” and, in a comment that unwittingly reveals the rarely acknowledged link between universal suffrage and universal conscription, Roosevelt declared: “Let us demand service from women as we do from men, and in return give the suffrage to all men and women who in peace and war perform the service.” When it came to men’s training, Roosevelt pointed to the U.S. Army camps as the standard to be imitated.

I believe that for every young man . . . to have six months in such a camp . . . [with] some field service, would be of incalculable benefit to him, and . . . to the nation. . . . [M]aking these camps permanent would be the greatest boon this nation could receive. [37]

This attachment to war, combined with the various manifestations of imperialism during his presidency, earned Theodore Roosevelt the scorn of New Left historians, after having enjoyed a period of tremendous popularity during the 1950s. The pendulum has since swung back in Roosevelt’s favor. Nearly every historian of Roosevelt since the late 1970s, with the smug self-satisfaction that comes from seeming to overturn the conventional wisdom, has argued that notwithstanding his reputation and his personal bellicosity, Theodore Roosevelt was actually much more restrained in foreign policy matters while in office than might have been expected. The only way to make this interpretation of Roosevelt’s conduct in foreign affairs persuasive is to downplay or to eliminate altogether any mention of the discomfiting fact that both as vice president and as president Theodore Roosevelt presided over a vicious and brutal war of suppression in the Philippines. It is simply not possible to pretend to assess Roosevelt’s tenure as president without examining this ugly episode in American history. This is in fact what most of these historians, to their everlasting shame, have done.

The United States obtained the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Commodore George Dewey, under instructions from Theodore Roosevelt himself (then assistant secretary of the Navy), attacked the islands a few days after the opening of hostilities in Cuba. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, when it became apparent that the United States had no intention of granting independence to the islands, guerrilla warfare broke out, spearheaded by Emilio Aguinaldo, the head of the rebels. The size of the American effort to suppress the Filipino nationalists has rarely been fully appreciated: some 126,000 American troops saw action in suppression campaigns, and an incredible 200,000 Filipinos lost their lives. [38]

While the fighting was going on, the Philadelphia Ledger featured a front-page story by a correspondent covering General J. Franklin Bell’s campaign that read:

The present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffé engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to “make them talk,” have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses.

This correspondent might seem to be a critic of American policy. In fact, he joined Roosevelt’s generals in pointing to the primitive and uncivilized Filipinos as an excuse for disregarding the norms of civilized warfare. “It is not civilized warfare,” he admitted, “but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is force, violence, and brutality, and we give it to them.” [39] Roosevelt’s own views on race, which would take an entire chapter to describe in detail, only encouraged this kind of barbarism; and more than once he insisted that he had no intention of dealing with peoples he called backward with the same treatment he afforded civilized countries. He told Rudyard Kipling how irritated he became with those who dared suggest that a country like Colombia “is entitled to just the treatment that I would give, say, to Denmark or Switzerland.” The very suggestion was a “mere absurdity,” he told another correspondent. [40]

Only after American conduct in the Philippines was given embarrassing publicity at home in 1902 did Roosevelt take any action at all, ordering the court-martial of General Smith and Major Glenn, and, even then, he seemed clearly displeased that the subject had been broached at all. At the same time, he denounced lynchings in the South – acts, he claimed, which were “worse to the victim, and far more brutalizing to those guilty of it,” than any atrocities that may have been committed in the Philippines. [41] Charles Francis Adams, who suspected that the brutality of the American side of the fighting enjoyed at least the president’s benign acquiescence, had predicted earlier that year that Roosevelt would “be very severe in words – on outrages; but no one will be punished.” He was right: Glenn ended up being fined fifty dollars, and Smith was “admonished.” Theodore Roosevelt’s utter lack of interest was made especially manifest when, immediately following his court-martial of General Smith, he wrote General J. Franklin Bell to congratulate him on his conduct of the war in Batangas. Bell was a man whose methods Henry Cabot Lodge himself had described as “cruel,” and it was well-known that Bell had ordered 100,000 Filipinos into concentration camps. [42] In 1906 Roosevelt went even further, and appointed General Bell as his chief of staff. [43]

Roosevelt’s approach in the Philippines was only the most spectacular indication that the content of his foreign policy left much to be desired, and it inaugurated a century of humanitarian violence that would be couched in the saccharine language of idealism and justice. Even more important from the point of view of Theodore Roosevelt’s contributions to the presidency as an institution, however, is the more procedural question of how he actually carried out his policy. It is here that he demonstrated his most brazen contempt for the legislative branch.

An excellent example concerns Roosevelt’s decision to take over the customs houses in the Dominican Republic. In what has become known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Theodore Roosevelt had declared in 1904 that although the United States had no territorial ambitions in its own hemisphere, cases of “chronic wrongdoing” on the part of a Latin American country that might invite occupation by a European power could force America’s hand. To forestall European occupation, the United States would intervene to restore order and to see that all just claims were satisfied. When it looked in early 1905 as though one or more European countries might intervene in the Dominican Republic to recover outstanding debt, Roosevelt put the Corollary into effect for the first time by declaring that the United States would administer the Dominican Republic’s customs collections to forestall any such foreign intervention.

From the beginning, Theodore Roosevelt seemed to have hoped to be able to avoid consulting the Senate at all. The agreement reached with the Dominican Republic was set to take effect February 1, 1905, a mere eleven days after it was signed – obviously too short an interval to allow for Senate discussion or approval. The administration had a change of heart after it found itself the subject of severe denunciations in the Senate, even among supporters of the president. Senator Augustus Bacon, not unreasonably, objected:

I do not think there can be any more important question than that which involves the consideration of the powers of the president to make a treaty which shall virtually take over the affairs of another government and seek to administer them by this Government, without submitting that question to the consideration and judgment of the Senate. [44]

For his part, Senator Henry Teller added:

I deny the right of the executive department of the Government to make any contract, any treaty, any protocol, or anything of that character which will bind the United States. . . . The president has no more right and no more authority to bind the people of the United States by such an agreement than I have as a member of this body. [45]

After the treaty was finally submitted to the Senate, a special session closed without taking a vote on it. An exasperated Roosevelt simply defied the Senate, drawing up what today we would call an executive agreement – by which, he later noted in his autobiography, “I went ahead and administered the proposed treaty anyhow, considering it as a simple agreement on the part of the Executive which could be converted into a treaty whenever the Senate acted.” The Senate finally did approve a modified version of the treaty two years later, but Roosevelt later wrote, “I would have continued it until the end of my term, if necessary, without any action by Congress.” [46]

Forrest McDonald observes that before Theodore Roosevelt’s accession to power, the last time a matter of real significance had been carried out by means of an executive agreement was the Rush–Bagot Agreement of 1817 between Britain and the United States that limited naval armaments on the Great Lakes. But even here, President Monroe eventually sought the opinion of the Senate as to whether it required ratification; and while that body gave no answer, it did approve the agreement by a two-thirds vote. It fell to Theodore Roosevelt to convert the executive agreement into a major instrument of American foreign policy, and he did so without hesitation or apology. These included “agreements to approve Japan’s military protectorate in Korea, to restrict Japanese immigration into the United States, to uphold the Open Door policy in China, and to recognize Japan’s ‘special interests’ in China.” [47]

One of the classic combinations of Roosevelt’s belligerence and his contempt for Congress was the Rough Rider’s decision to send the entire battle fleet on a worldwide tour, the aim of which was to impress all nations, but in particular to intimidate Japan. As presidential scholars have noted, the manner in which Roosevelt carried out this exhibition was perhaps as significant as the act itself. Congress objected immediately, threatening to withhold funds for the tour. Roosevelt saw their bluff, and warned Congress that since he had the money to send the ships to the Pacific, their refusal to fund the return trip – and therefore to strip the East of its defenses – was a political decision he would leave to them. [48]

Indeed, Congress (and even Roosevelt’s own cabinet) looked on impotently as much of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was conducted. “I took Panama without consulting the Cabinet,” Roosevelt later recalled. “A council of war never fights, and in a crisis the duty of a leader is to lead.” Upon sending his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, to restore some kind of order in Cuba, he told the future president, “I should not dream of asking the permission of Congress. . . . It is for the enormous interest of this government to strengthen and give independence to the Executive in dealing with foreign powers.” [49] When the Senate insisted on modifying the language of a series of arbitration treaties between the United States and nine European countries and Mexico so that the right of the president to reach a “special agreement” with a country with whom the United States was entering arbitration would instead become the right to enter a “special treaty” – thereby requiring the president to secure the Senate’s consent – Roosevelt rejected the treaties altogether on such a basis. [50] Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Shelby M. Cullom, meanwhile, later explained that the Senate had had no choice but to “assert and uphold its rights as part of the treaty-making power.” [51]

Many of Roosevelt’s contemporaries favored a strong executive and an expansionist foreign policy because they had become convinced that American business needed to seize foreign markets for their unsold surpluses. Roosevelt seems to have shared this view, but his primary concern in expansion was a geopolitical one: to elevate the United States to the great-power status to which it had an increasing claim. In fact, as Emily Rosenberg has pointed out, Roosevelt only became interested in the economic issues involved in foreign affairs when he perceived matters of national honor at stake, when a foreign power was not showing the United States the respect he thought it deserved. Thus, in 1905 Roosevelt was prepared for a direct confrontation with China when that country cancelled a railroad concession it had granted to J.P. Morgan. It was not without reason that the Chinese ordered the cancellation: in five years Morgan had completed a mere twenty-eight miles of what was ultimately supposed to be an 840-mile track, and they also claimed certain violations of contract on his part. Morgan himself, perhaps recognizing the flimsiness of his case, accepted the settlement, which included a handsome compensation package for profits foregone. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was furious. He later remarked privately that if Morgan had decided to fight, “I would have put the power of the government behind them, so far as the executive was concerned, in every shape and way.” [52] No wonder that a half-century later, when the proposed Bricker Amendment, which among other things would have limited the executive’s free hand in foreign affairs, came up for discussion, big business was one of its most vocal opponents. [53]

Looking back on his years in office, Roosevelt told his son in 1909: “I have been a full president right up to the end.” [54] And just as he promised, Roosevelt had seized all the power that inhered in the presidency, and through his actions in office permanently strengthened the executive for his successors.

[W]henever I could establish a precedent for strength in the executive, as I did for instance as regards external affairs in the case of sending the fleet around the world, taking Panama, settling affairs of Santo Domingo and Cuba; or as I did in internal affairs in settling the anthracite coal strike, in keeping order in Nevada this year when the Federation of Miners threatened anarchy, or as I have done in bringing the big corporations to book – why, in all these cases I have felt not merely that my action was right in itself, but that in showing the strength of, or in giving strength to, the executive, I was establishing a precedent of value. [55]

In both domestic and foreign affairs, that meant seizing the initiative, constitutionally or not, from Congress, and in international relations it meant that the United States would force its way onto the world stage to take its rightful place among the great powers. Long gone was the view of Charles Pinckney, who had said that

[w]e mistake the object of our Government if we hope or wish that it is to make us respectable abroad. Conquest or superiority among other Powers is not, or ought never to be, the object of republican systems. If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt, and preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them – it is more than almost any other government ensures to its citizens. [56]

Instead of this classical vision of the American republic, Roosevelt solidified trends toward centralization that had been at work since the 1860s and institutionalized what amounted to a revolution in the American form of government. His legacy is cherished by neoconservatives and other nationalists but deplored by Americans who still possess a lingering attachment to the republic the framers established.


[1] William Henry Harbaugh, Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961), p. 522.

[2] Clinton Rossiter, The American Presidency (New York: New American Library, 1960), p. 97.

[3] Walter LaFeber, “The Making of a Bully Boy,” Inquiry, June 11 and 25, 1979, p. 15.

[4] Emmet John Hughes, The Living Presidency: The Resources and Dilemmas of the American Presidential Office (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan), p. 91.

[5] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1979).

[6] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Random House Modern Library, 1931), p. 417.

[7] John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 69.

[8] Michael P. Riccards, The Ferocious Engine of Democracy: A History of the American Presidency, vol. 2, Theodore Roosevelt through George Bush (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1995), pp. 5–6.

[9] Forrest McDonald, A Constitutional History of the United States (Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger, 1982), p. 166.

[10] John Morton Blum, The Republican Roosevelt (New York: Athaneum, [1954] 1962), p. 122.

[11] Ibid., pp. 107–08.

[12] Calhoun’s remarks are taken from Register of Debates in Congress, 23rd Cong., 1st sess., May 6, 1834 (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834), pp. 1645–46.

[13] Ibid., p. 1646; see also Gary L. Gregg II, The Presidential Republic: Executive Representation and Deliberative Democracy (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), pp. 80–89.

[14] Theodore Roosevelt to John St. Loe Strachey, February 12, 1906, in Elting E. Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 5, The Big Stick, 1905–1907 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 151.

[15] Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt, Wayne Andrews, ed., (New York: Octagon, 1975), p. 282.

[16] Congressional Record, April 5 and June 19, 1906.

[17] Quoted in Lewis L. Gould, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), p. 158.

[18] Quoted in ibid., p. 169.

[19] William C. Widenor, “Theodore Roosevelt,” in Frank N. Magill, ed., The American Presidents: The Office and the Men, vol. 2: Lincoln to Hoover, rev. ed., (Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Educational Corporation, 1989), p. 185.

[20] Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 198.

[21] See, for example, Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage Books, [1948] 1974), pp. 298–99.

[22] See Murray N. Rothbard, The Case Against the Fed (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1994).

[23] Albro Martin, Enterprise Denied: Origins of the Decline of American Railroads, 1897–1917 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971).

[24] Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 165.

[25] On the Northern Securities case, see Dominick T. Armentano, Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1982), pp. 53–55; Henry F. Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), pp. 252ff.

[26] Roosevelt, Autobiography, pp. 228–29.

[27] Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt, p. 253.

[28] Armentano, Antitrust and Monopoly, p. 54.

[29] Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), p. 358.

[30] W. Stull Holt, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle Between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933; Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1964), p. 221.

[31] Blum, The Republican Roosevelt, p. 127.

[32] LaFeber, “The Making of a Bully Boy,” pp. 15–16;Theodore Roosevelt to William Bayard Hale, December 3, 1908, in Morison, ed., Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. 6, The Big Stick, 1907–1909, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 1408.

[33] On all this, see Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), pp. 36–38.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 36.

[37] Matthew J. Glover, “What Might Have Been: Theodore Roosevelt’s Platform for 1920,” in Natalie A. Taylor, Douglas Brinkley, and John Allen Gable, eds., Theodore Roosevelt: Many-Sided American (Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes, 1992), pp. 488–89.

[38] Precise casualty figures are difficult to establish, in large part because deaths resulting from a cholera epidemic at the end of the war have often been conflated with those of the war itself. It is also unclear to what extent war conditions and American policy led to or exacerbated the spread of cholera. See Glenn A. May, “150,000 Missing Filipinos: A Demographic Crisis in Batangas, 1887–1903,” Annales de Demographie Historique [France] 1985: 215–43; Mary C. Gillett, “U.S. Army Medical Officers and Public Health in the Philippines in the Wake of the Spanish–American War, 1898–1905,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64 (1990): 567–87; Ken De Bevoise, Agents of Apocalypse: Epidemic Disease in the Colonial Philippines (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew D. Cliff, “The Philippine Insurrection and the 1902–04 Cholera Epidemic: Part I – Epidemiological Diffusion Processes in War,” Journal of Historical Geography 24 (January 1998): 69–89; Warwick Anderson, “Immunities of Empire: Race, Disease, and the New Tropical Medicine, 1900–1920,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 70 (1996): 94–118. The figure of 200,000 deaths appears in McDonald, The American Presidency, p. 394.

[39] Stuart Creighton Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation”: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1903 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 211.

[40] Howard C. Hill, Roosevelt and the Caribbean (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 208.

[41] Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, pp. 56–57.

[42] Daniel B. Schirmer, Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1972), pp. 238–39.

[43] Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation,” p. 260.

[44] Holt, Treaties Defeated by the Senate, p. 216.

[45] On all this, see ibid.; quotation on pp. 215–16.

[46] McDonald, The American Presidency, p. 390.

[47] Ibid., pp. 389–90.

[48] Riccards, Theodore Roosevelt Through George Bush, p. 19.

[49] Hughes, The Living Presidency, pp. 92–93.

[50] Gould, Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 149.

[51] Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, 2nd ed. (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1911), p. 399.

[52] Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 58.

[53] See “Bricker’s Battle I,” Human Events (January 13, 1954): 1; see also Duane Tananbaum, The Bricker Amendment Controversy: A Test of Eisenhower’s Political Leadership (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 58, 127.

[54] Emmet John Hughes, The Living Presidency, p. 93.

[55] Theodore Roosevelt to George Otto Trevelyan, June 19, 1908, in Morison, ed., The Big Stick, 1907–1909, p. 1087.

[56] Quoted in Felix Morley, “American Republic or American Empire,” Modern Age 1 (Summer 1957): 26.

August 14, 2007

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author, most recently, of 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. His other books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

Copyright © 2007 Ludwig von Mises Institute

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4 Responses to TR and the Modern Presidency

  1. Hi,

    Read the above…

    War and a Thug-Bloody Kill
    May 27, 2009 by Philip Edwards |

    America and Capitalism and War and a last look at America the Beautiful. Face it; we are a nation at war with the world. We have already destroyed societies’ last wiggle-look at freedom and (a-drum-roll-please) survival. Hard times and big guns and bang-bang your dead…Add Iraq (Oil), Afghanistan (destroy the made in America) Taliban terror and other places across this planet. Our military, our CIA and our NSA, three and boom an unholy trinity…Wow!

    We have either fought in or started wars in: Panama, Argentina, Haiti,Venezuela, Columbia, Nicaragua, Pakistan and etc. (Weapons and the killers’ soul and proxy wars and the Generals of Rome would be proud of our War-Machine). Truth, that without war, America’s Economy would fail?

    The CIA is a Thug-Bloody Monster. Over the last (50-60) years Agents-of-Death have crawled into many countries and in the guise of fighting Communism or lately drugs, have aided dictators and revolutions around the world. What is Colonialism?

    If one person is tortured then America has tortured a country. Cause a government to fail and then civil war? Slip and slide with a Dictator or a King and America destroys our morals, our credibility, and our visions of ‘whatever’ and our future hope of the freedom bell and their bell of something governmental.

    Call this, a war against Communism, drugs and other reasons and reasons and reasons and the thrill of the Hunt. The result is always the killing and the blood-spilling. Gain a death and we have lost a life.

    Bullets and Killing and War…oh my

    Is there still a civil war in Iraq? Are Peace and Love and Understanding alive on this Planet? If not, it is time to move on…Shots ring-out and bodies drop. America’s Fall like the Roman’s Fell…oops.


    Phil Edwards

  2. kathy says:

    Since when does a president (or any man, for that matter) think he can take the oath of office to UPHOLD the Constitution and then do what he wants? I have been asking myself this as I read Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism. This is the most corrupt, shamefeul, deceitful, thing that can happen to a country. And since when does someone who DISAGREES with the Constitution take the oath of office to uphold it. What…are they kidding? They must have their fingers crossed behind their backs as they speak. And just who is TR to think he can “loathe” Thomas Jefferson? These Progressives are so arrogant…with no respect for our founders and what they did…but then, with Progressives in power, there is no respect for anything. Notice how the words freedom and liberty are no longer heard from the current administration.

  3. Pingback: Top Posts @ Gunny G’s… « -THE "G" BLOGS ~ Gunny G Online -

  4. thekolinskichronicle says:

    Thoughtful commentary on TR. Thank you.

    It seems as a practical matter the liberal / conservative paradigm is no longer constructive. The L and C have become two manipulated tails foolishly wagging at opposite ends of the same leash, all the while being led to the same park.

    A little independent thought and some moral conviction would go a long way in today’s Amerika.

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