Ronald J. Pestritto: Theodore Roosevelt Was No Conservative





[Mr. Pestritto is the Shipley Professor of the American Constitution at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. Among his books are "Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).]

We know that Barack Obama and his allies identify themselves as "progressives," and that they aim to implement the big-government liberalism that originated in America's Progressive Era and was consummated in the New Deal. What remains a mystery is why some conservatives want to claim this progressive identity as their own -- particularly as it was manifested by Theodore Roosevelt.

The fact that conservative politicians such as John McCain and writers like William Kristol and Karl Rove are attracted to our 26th president is strange because, if we want to understand where in the American political tradition the idea of unlimited, redistributive government came from, we need look no further than to Roosevelt and others who shared his outlook.

Progressives of both parties, including Roosevelt, were the original big-government liberals. They understood full well that the greatest obstacle to their schemes of social justice and equality of material condition was the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written and understood: as creating a national government of limited, enumerated powers that was dedicated to securing the individual natural rights of its citizens, especially liberty of contract and private property.

It was the Republican TR, who insisted in his 1910 speech on the "New Nationalism" that there was a "general right of the community to regulate" the earning of income and use of private property "to whatever degree the public welfare may require it." He was at one here with Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who had in 1885 condemned Americans' respect for their Constitution as "blind worship," and suggested that his countrymen dedicate themselves to the Declaration of Independence by leaving out its "preface" -- i.e., the part of it that establishes the protection of equal natural rights as the permanent task of government.

In his "Autobiography," Roosevelt wrote that he "declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it." The national government, in TR's view, was not one of enumerated powers but of general powers, and the purpose of the Constitution was merely to state the narrow exceptions to that rule.

This is a view of government directly opposed by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 84. Hamilton explains there that the fundamental difference between a republican constitution and a monarchic one is that the latter reserves some liberty for the people by stating specific exceptions to the assumed general power of the crown, whereas the former assumes from the beginning that the power of the people is the general rule, and the power of the government the exception.

TR turns this on its head....


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