Here is Bob’s spirited reponse to all the Teddy bashing we’ve had on this channel:
It came as no surprise that my interlocutors in a recent Claremont Institute symposium, following in the tradition of Leo Strauss, are no fans of Theodore Roosevelt. But things went a little far when the Postmodern Conservative, under the First Things banner, joined in with Jean Yarbrough to render the 26th president as a “bit a fascist,” “vaguely creepy” or “strenuously statist,” and “ambiguously socially conservative.”
What’s really creepy is the constant TR-bashing in conservative circles. Attempting to discredit one of America’s most effective Republican presidents by casting him as an Obama prototype is not only historically disingenuous, it is politically harmful. Rote opposition to the TR brand of conservatism only perpetuates the depressed fortunes of the GOP, as well as the social conservative cause. And it does nothing to help distinguish our true friends from our true adversaries.
Social conservatives have two choices. They can cozy up to the libertarians and accept the financialization and globalization agenda that has largely co-opted the GOP in the post-Reagan era. In doing so, of course, they must overlook that the Koch brothers, the bankrollers of this shift, delivered for the Democrats a huge victory in New York State on same-sex marriage two years ago. Like many in the Republican donor class, these billionaires support the legal shenanigans aimed at fully deconstructing the vital institution of marriage nationwide. By making this pact with the devil, social conservatives continue to relegate themselves to the back of the bus, where we have sat since the 1980s.
The second option is to appreciate TR as he really was: a promising model of both economic and social policy. This American statesman was neither a socialist nor a liberal, neither a friend of elites nor an internationalist. He was pro-middle class, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life, pro-fertility, pro-worker, pro-industry, and pro-growth. His passion to protect motherhood, children, and the average working stiff from the ravages of industrialization and the emergence of the national corporation came right out of Catholic social teaching and from G.K. Chesterton, as well as the Dutch Protestant Abraham Kuyper, the progressive-conservative prime minister of Holland whose tenure paralleled TR’s first term in the White House.
Not only was TR conversant with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, but he also corresponded — and exchanged books — with the Pope, Chesterton, and Kuyper. Indeed, the Colonel was so taken with Chesterton that he insisted on having dinner with the British journalist when in London during his post-presidential European tour, an event that did not go unnoticed in the press. A visit to Sagamore Hill will confirm that TR prominently displayed Chesterton’s Orthodoxy on his desk in the library.
While Professor Yarbrough may give these influences short shrift, they confirm TR as a true champion of social conservatism, the pioneer of our movement. Even as he saw the family as an ingredient of nation building, TR’s vision of American family life was no more nationalistic than was Abraham Lincoln’s advocacy of free labor and for ending slavery.
Allan Carlson may wish the Rough Rider had explored the religious dimension of familism, yet the leading social historian heaps praise on the 26th president for constructing an understanding of American identity that placed “the natural family” at the center. Indeed, Carlson maintains this construct served the country exceedingly well throughout much of the 20th century (see Carlson’s The “American Way,” pp. 1–16).
While he may not have used the Catholic term “subsidiarity,” Roosevelt’s own words make it clear that he saw the family, with Aristotle, as the most basic unit of society. “It is in the life of the family, upon which in the last analysis the whole welfare of the Nation rests,” TR proclaimed at the 1903 New York State Fair. “The nation is nothing,” he continued, “but the aggregate of the families within its borders.” And he affirmed in a 1907 Michigan speech the family relation “as the most fundamental, the most important of all relations.”
TR was an uncompromising pro-family conservative. Period. Conservatives would do well to emulate his bold commitments to the American family — and the middle class — as the Party of Lincoln seeks to recover a winning formula in the Age of Obama.