Teddy vs. Calvin
Theodore Roosevelt seems to be in vogue among certain Republican contenders -- but his Republicanism might not be the most conservative brand available. In fact, a big ideological contender against Roosevelt is Calvin Coolidge, another Republican stalwart of the 20th century. Though these two men occupied the same political party, each embodies one side of a struggle between philosophical factions that continues today.
In summarizing his view of the proper role of the presidency, Roosevelt in his autobiography writes, "I 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"1. In other words, Roosevelt rejected the notion that Article II defined his powers in the Constitution. If something needed to be done, according to Teddy, he should have the power to do it himself, unilaterally. In practical terms, this is a rejection of free-market capitalism and the separation of powers.
In a speech laying out his New Nationalism, Roosevelt claimed, "I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective -- a graduated inherited tax"2. This ideology makes the claim that just because you earned, or inherited, any wealth, that does not make it your own. To Roosevelt, what you have should be what the federal government allows you to keep. In the same speech, Roosevelt continued that we must be an "advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it"3. Roosevelt completely rejects the free-market system in favor of socialism. Instead, he believes that enlightened individuals, or people like himself who believe what he does, should make life decisions for the general population in order to create a more ideal society.
He also applies the same authoritarian philosophy to foreign policy. Theodore was one of the first presidents to openly advocate an aggressive foreign policy and the concept of policing the world. As historian Edmund Morris writes, "[e]xpansion, to him, meant a hemispheric program of acquisition, democratization, and liberation"4. Much like Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt wanted to make the world "safe for democracy" through the use of military force. Many conservatives today, in fact, forget that the idea of interventionism is a very liberal and progressive idea at its root. Roosevelt believed that the United States could impose its will upon the world by sheer muscle, and as a result, Americans would be beloved for offering their benevolent services. History shows again and again the futility of this method due to its overall weakening of America's defense and its heavy financial burden.
In stark contrast to Roosevelt, President Calvin Coolidge emerged during the 1920s as the party's new standard-bearer. As biographer Robert Sobel writes of Coolidge, "[i]f Coolidge was known for anything, it was honesty, integrity, and incorruptability"5. Much like Grover Cleveland, Coolidge was a man who put principle first and party second. Those principles, however, were quite different from Theodore's. When discussing the importance of living and acting according to principle, Coolidge stated, "I believe in the American Constitution. I favor the American system of individual enterprise, and I am opposed to any general extension of government ownership and control[.] ... I am opposed to aggressive war."6
Coolidge, unlike Roosevelt, was much more in sync with traditional Jeffersonian beliefs. He felt that if the government wasn't spending much, it would not need to tax much. During his administration, Coolidge dramatically cut spending and taxes, which freed the American economy up for the first time since pre-Teddy Roosevelt. The result was an unprecedented economic growth rate. Americans were becoming more prosperous while maintaining their liberty. Coolidge understood that when individuals were empowered and unshackled from government, they would have the greatest chance to better their own lives and the lives of their children. This is the polar opposite of Roosevelt, who felt the government must be involved in all aspects of the economy and must help dictate where the resources go.
A common criticism of Coolidge is that during his tenure, America adopted an isolationist foreign policy. This, however, is false. Isolationism, one recalls, entails the militarizing of a country's borders and the cessation of trade or diplomatic relations with any foreign nation, much like North Korea has done in recent decades. On the contrary, the Coolidge administration did the opposite. Coolidge disavowed the aggressive policies of Teddy and Woodrow in favor of a stronger national defense and more pronounced support of trade relations. The result was the opening of new markets for American merchants while avoiding costly entanglements that would lead to increased taxation and spending while threatening American citizens' freedom as promised by the Constitution. Coolidge's foreign policy, in fact, cleaved to non-interventionism much more than it did to isolationism.
Today, we face the choice of deciding which of these two men were correct. They both cannot be right. People such as President Obama, John McCain, and Newt Gingrich admire Theodore Roosevelt and his progressive policies. Others, like Ron Paul, are much more closely aligned to Calvin Coolidge and the ideas of the free market and individualism. Still others attempt to compromise and come down somewhere in between.
However, as the old saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. As America's economy continues to crumble and our national security is weakened, Americans will be faced with a critical choice very soon. Do we support Roosevelt, socialism, and government running our lives? Or do we support Coolidge, the Constitution, and personal responsibility for our lives?
Troy Smith has bachelor degrees in history and psychology and currently works as an educator.
1 Pestritto, Ronald. American Progressivism. 2008. Pg. 181
2 Ibid, Pg 218
3 Ibid, Pg 220
4 Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. 2001. Pg. 24
5 Sobel, Robert. Calvin Coolidge An American Enigma. 1998. Pg. 156
6 Ibid, Pg. 292