President Theodore Roosevelt
1858-1919; Republican, New York
Theodore Roosevelt needs no introduction. Celebrated for his courage and progressive vision, he is one of our most famous and beloved presidents, an American hero.
But like many heroes, his achievements have been somewhat exaggerated. For all Roosevelt’s reputation as a fearless warrior—the Rough Rider, the Trustbuster, the Bull Moose—he was a hesitant reformer who advocated “evolution, not revolution” and shied away from radical change. “I have a horror of hysterics or sentimentality,” he explained. “All I want to do is cautiously to feel my way to see if we cannot make the general conditions of life a little easier, a little better.”
Roosevelt’s caution stemmed from two impulses. On one hand, he was a practical politician. Knowing that conservative senators and congressmen would never pass ambitious legislation, he pursued incremental change. To get things done, he quietly cooperated with conservative leaders like Senator Nelson Aldrich and House Speaker Joseph Cannon. Even though they watered down his bills, he preferred to work with them than with “alleged radical reformers” like Senator Robert La Follette, the progressive pioneer from Wisconsin.
Practicality was not the only factor holding Roosevelt back. The aristocrat in him worried about revolutionary upheaval and recoiled from La Follette’s ferocious rhetoric. In public speeches and private letters, he balanced every call for reform with dire warnings that “violent, radical, and unwise change” would strangle the economy and plunge the country into chaos. He liked to compare crusading reformers to bumbling surgeons whose drastic efforts to cure the nation’s ills would ultimately kill the patient.
Roosevelt's caution made hardly a dent in the wall of congressional obstruction, and he finished his presidency with few historic legislative accomplishments. Even his celebrated trustbusting was less impressive than the record of his more conservative successor, William Taft. As a result, Roosevelt's presidency is more noteworthy for his executive actions, popularity, and diplomacy than for his legislative legacy.
His progressive reputation derives mainly from his post-presidential activity, especially his 1912 third-party campaign. After returning from an extended trip to Africa, Roosevelt broke away from conservative leaders he had once accommodated and embraced progressive reforms he had once spurned. The radicalized Roosevelt who ran for office in 1912 looked very different from the one who had occupied White House four years earlier.
These changes came too late for Senator La Follette. As his friends and allies joined Roosevelt’s new “Bull Moose” party, La Follette stubbornly insisted that Roosevelt was not a true progressive. During the bitter campaign of 1912, their tortured relationship broke down completely, and the progressive movement splintered.