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Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition

Jean M. Yarbrough

New in Paperback: January 2014
xxiv, 256 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1968-9, $24.95


book cover imageRough Rider, hunter, trust-buster, president, and Bull Moose candidate. Biographers have long fastened on TR as man of action, while largely ignoring his political thought. Now, in time for the centennial of his Progressive run for the presidency, Jean Yarbrough provides a searching examination of TR’s political thought, especially in relation to the ideas of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln—the statesmen TR claimed most to admire.

Yarbrough sets out not only to explore Roosevelt’s vision for America but also to consider what his political ideas have meant for republican self-government. She praises TR for his fighting spirit, his love of country, and efforts to promote republican greatness, but faults him for departing from the political principles of the more nationalistic Founders he esteemed. With the benefit of hindsight, she argues that the progressive policies he came to embrace have over time undermined the very qualities Roosevelt regarded as essential to civic life. In particular, the social welfare policies he championed have eroded industry and self-reliance; the expansion of the regulatory state has multiplied the special interests seeking access to political power; and the bureaucratic experts in whom he reposed such confidence have all too often turned out to be neither disinterested nor effective.

Yarbrough argues that TR’s early historical studies—inspired by Darwinian biology and Hegelian political thought—treated westward expansion from an evolutionary and developmental perspective that placed race and conquest at the center of the narrative, while relegating individual rights and consent of the governed to the sidelines.

Although his early career showed him to be a moderate Republican reformer, Yarbrough argues that even then he did not share Hamilton’s enthusiasm for the commercial republic, and substituted an appeal to “abstract duty” for The Federalist’s reliance on self-interest. As New York governor and first-term president, TR attempted to strike a “just balance” between democratic and oligarchic interests, but by the end of his presidency he had tipped the balance in favor of progressive policies. From the New Nationalism until his death in 1919, Roosevelt continued to claim the mantle of Washington and Lincoln, even as he moved further from their political principles.

Through careful examination of TR’s political thought, Yarbrough’s book sheds new light on his place in the American political tradition, while enhancing our understanding of the roots of progressivism and its transformation of the Constitution.

“Many books have been written about Theodore Roosevelt the man, but Yarbrough admirably captures Roosevelt the thinker. The true value of Yarbrough’s book, however, is not its exegesis of Roosevelt, sound as that is, but in its compelling representation of Roosevelt as an avatar of profound shifts in American political thinking. The main elements of this shift are the replacement of the mechanisms of constitutional politics with the organicism of German state theory; the shift to presidential politics as the embodiment of the new nationalism; the alterations of the Framers’ ideas of human nature and liberty; and the problematic resolution of the tensions between liberty and equality in the idea of fraternity. Yarbrough adroitly contrasts Roosevelt’s emergent Progressivism with the traditional ideas found in the Declaration of Independence, demonstrating how the Progressive movement reconstituted US politics. Her sense of Roosevelt’s place in the American political tradition is sure. Yarbrough gives a full accounting of the race-based and scientistic (Darwinian) assumptions that undergirded Roosevelt’s aspirations toward national greatness and large-scale communitarian politics. The book is written in an accessible, clear style. Summing up: Highly recommended. All readership levels.”—Choice

“In this extraordinary book centering on Theodore Roosevelt, Yarbrough has combined three genres to produce a new kind of political writing. As biography, it offers a rich and compelling account of TR’s life, especially in the period of his mature years. As intellectual history, it supplies the best treatment to date of TR’s own political thought, situating it within the framework of the various strands of progressivism. Finally, as political theory in its own right, it explores TR’s political and constitutional ideas in the light of the thought of the founders and of Abraham Lincoln, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of TR as both a thinker and statesman. Yarbrough has pulled off the perfect intellectual trifecta.”—James W. Ceaser, author of Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought

“This is a book of the first importance, and comes at an important moment. No one before Yarbrough has endeavored, with such patience and ingenuity, to demonstrate that, contrary to his bluff and unreflective public image, Roosevelt was a man heavily driven by ideas. And no one before Yarbrough has had the temerity to point out that, for all Roosevelt’s sincere professions of devotion to the Founding Fathers, those ideas were a dagger aimed at the heart of the Founders’ Constitution. A hundred years after the passing of Progressivism’s high tide, it is long past time for a reevaluation of Theodore Roosevelt and his legacy. Here is the book to begin with.”—Wilfred M. McClay, author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America

“Taking Theodore Roosevelt seriously as political thinker, Yarbrough shows convincingly that the Rough Rider contributed significantly to a redefinition of the American social contract. Thoroughly researched, carefully argued, and well written, this book offers fresh insights into how TR became permanently etched in the American imagination and left a legacy that poses fundamental challenges to the Framers’ Constitution. A must read for anyone who wants to understand the deep philosophical and historical roots of contemporary developments in American political life.”—Sidney M. Milkis, author of Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy

“Roosevelt has at last received the attention of a superb analyst of his political thought. Yarbrough’s stylish and comprehensive study goes beyond the show and the bombast to the ambition, the power, and the failings of TR’s designs for republican self-government.”—Harvey C. Mansfield, author of Manliness and Machiavelli’s Virtue

“A path-breaking book, this major work of scholarship makes an important contribution to the literature on Roosevelt. But it will prove even more significant for the understanding of American political thought and development, in particular the character of Progressivism and how it transformed the constitutional system.”—James R. Stoner, Jr., author of Common-Law Liberty: Rethinking American Constitutionalism

JEAN M. YARBROUGH is Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College and author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.

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