August 04, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt: Who was this "progressive" president?

I'm sure you're familiar with all of this:

1. Busted more trusts than any other president.
2. Conserved more lands for environmental needs, and with strong legal protections, than anybody before him, and more than his immediate successors.
3. Fought to lower the high tariff on imported goods, which was strongly supported by big-business Republicans.
4. Got Congress to pass the 16th amendment and send it to the states, which allowed the federal government to base income tax on individual incomes, not on state populations, which obviously favored the likes of New York.
5. Showed more commitment to racial tolerance than some previous members of his own party by inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House.
6. Addressed the nation's banking problems, after multiple predecessors had been held hostage during financial crises by J.P. Morgan.

That's our man! Teddy, the first progressive president! Only, he did none of those things.

If I had added "by creating the Federal Reserve System" to the end of No. 6, knowledgeable people would have guessed Woodrow Wilson on that, wondered if Wilson did the previous stuff, but then scratched their heads at No. 5.

The reality is that TR wasn't that enlightened on race relations, and William Howard Taft did 1-4.

Yes. On No. 2, not just counting efforts started by Roosevelt, but only on efforts on his own, Taft busted more trusts than TR. That's in part due to Teddy's philosophy, that big wasn't necessarily bad, but what TR said was bad, was bad. Hence the appropriate title of Edmund Morris' volume of biography, "Theodore Rex."

That, in turn, leads directly to No. 2.

Many historically knowledgeable people know that TR broke with Taft due to his firing of Gifford Pinchot as the country's direct of forests. They may not know why.

Pinchot got in a tussle with Taft's Interior secretary. Then, as today, the forests were under USDA (another non-fix of TR), so there was a turf war. The big issue at stake was how, late in his administration, TR and Pinchot set aside land within forest preserves for hydrological protection. Taft and Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger were convinced that the TR-Pinchot methodology wouldn't withstand legal scrutiny. After releasing some lands back to private control, they went through the process again, and wound up protecting even more land in the end than the TR-Pinchot work.

No. 3? TR explicitly said during his tenure that he had no plans on taking on the tariff and advised Taft to do the same. Sadly, Taft got excoriated by TR worshipers for doing exactly that and not getting as much as they wanted.

That's even though, as part of what he did get, he got No. 4, Congress passing the 16th Amendment and sending it to the states, something that "progressive" TR didn't even try.

No. 5? When Southerners protested in horror about the first non-servant black man in the White House since Frederick Douglass during Lincoln's presidency (I'm unaware of Grant inviting any, and know that nobody after him did), he recoiled, especially when they mentioned that his mother was a Southerner. He even started cutting back on hiring blacks for Post Office jobs in the south. And, those that know TR know that the 1906 Brownsville affair was one of the blackest blots on his record.

No. 6? TR had had a run-in with J.P. Morgan over his work to break up Morgan-controlled Northern Securities in 1904. This was when Morgan famously said (not exact to the letter, you can Google it): "Send your man to my man and they can fix things up." And, TR knew about Grover Cleveland having to go to Morgan during the Panic of 1893 and a run on the nation's gold supply and beg for help, including being forced to meet Morgan personally. Yet, TR was short-sighted enough, limited in sight enough, or simply not progressive enough to not do anything to fix the nation's banking apparatus.

Then, along came the Panic of 1907, and TR having to kowtow to Morgan. Wilson's Federal Reserve, at the level of the regional Feds, may have left too much power in bankers' hands, but it was a big improvement beyond what we had.

As the Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts -- TR, FDR, and Eleanor -- comes on this fall, keep all of this in mind.

It's arguable that TR is the nation's most overrated president before GOP hagiography of Ronald Reagan.

No comments: