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Research Paper on Roosevelt's Progressivism

A history research paper on Roosevelt's Progressivism may agree or disagree that he was a progressive. A recent biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Nathan Miller, has called him the “…first Progressive president…”.  We are entitled to ask, “How progressive was he?”  Your research paper on Roosevelt's Progressivism may answer, “Not very.”

Evidence to the Contrary Regarding Roosevelt's "Progressivism"

Roosevelt's ProgressivismA perusal of Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address of 1905 reveals a certain complacency with respect to the state of the nation and a tendency to look outward, to see the well-being of the Republic in terms of its position in the world.  Mention is made of some of the domestic problems facing the nation, but this mention is couched in a language of vague generalities.  Roosevelt does not speak in terms of specific issues and policies and does not suggest concrete legislative action.  Other history term papers tell of the lack of Roosevelt's Progressivism also.

With respect to foreign policy, there is a certain hint of the progressive spirit in this: “Towards all other nations, large and small…We must show not only in our words, but in our deeds, that we are earnestly desirous…of acting toward them in a spirit of just and generous recognition of all their rights…”.  But this, particularly in the light of Theodore Roosevelt’s jingoist past and his propensity while president to engage in muscle flexing (the White Fleets circumnavigation of the globe), can be dismissed as boilerplate. 

Your research paper on Roosevelt's progressivism may want to argue the following:

  1. Theodore Roosevelt was an imperialist
  2. Roosevelt's views on foreign policy cannot be reconciled with something like Wilson’s “14 Points”, the product of a truly progressive mentality.
  3. Roosevelt’s outward looking mentality, his preoccupation with our “position in the world” was fundamentally out of step with the progressive tendency to focus on domestic affairs, their desire to use government as a tool to ameliorate domestic social problems.

Reformer - Yes; Progressive - No

That Theodore Roosevelt was a sincere reformer early in his career cannot be challenged.  Moreover, there can be no doubt that his administrations were successful in bringing about real, substantive reforms and, speaking generally, that during these administrations the government was able to make inroads upon the power of Wall Street.

But two points need to be asked about Roosevelt’s penchant for espousing reform.  First, he was a remarkably intelligent politician and he could sense which way the wind was blowing.  Taft, who did not have Roosevelt’s keen political sense and resisted reforms, got less than one half of the votes in 1912 than went to Wilson and Roosevelt.  Second, Roosevelt’s basic instincts were to preserve the status quo.  Anything that threatened the status quo was apt to bring forth from him a bitter, visceral response as when, in 1906, he attacked the muck-rakers.

Hofstadter states that Roosevelt was, “…the type of Progressive leader whose real impulses were deeply conservative…”.  He suggests also that Roosevelt might not have become a Progressive if he had not felt the necessity to fend off more radical threats to the status quo.

To question the sincerity of Roosevelt’s progressivism is not to accuse him of cynicism.  This writer does not doubt that Roosevelt’s reforms were more than mere window dressing.  Roosevelt was a serious person and he saw his reforms as effectively addressing real problems.  But a true Progressive, such as Wisconsin’s La Follette, had a much lower threshold of pain with respect to the injustices of the social system then in place. La Follette was not comfortable with the status quo and worked to bring about sweeping reforms.  The same might be said, albeit to a lesser degree, of Woodrow Wilson.

For what it is worth, Roosevelt seems to me to have been a creature of a particular, brief moment in American history.  His heyday, I think, was in the first five years of this century. By 1912 he was already a dated figure.  By the time of World War One he was a complete anachronism.  He was intelligent enough to see that some of the work the Progressives wanted done was work that should be done, but he was basically a man too comfortable with things as they then were to want to change them much and he was therefore a little bit behind the progressive curve.

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