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Bully Boy

The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy

Bully Boy by Jim Powell
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What Hath TR Wrought?

“I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands.” —Theodore Roosevelt

The notion that Theodore Roosevelt was one of America’s greatest presidents is literally carved in stone—right up there on Mount Rushmore. But as historian Jim Powell shows in the refreshingly original Bully Boy, Roosevelt’s toothy grin, outsized personality, colossal energy, and fascinating life story have obscured what he actually did as president.

And what Roosevelt did severely damaged the United States.

Until now, no historian has thoroughly rebutted the adulation so widely accorded to TR. Powell digs beneath the surface to expose the harm Roosevelt did to the country in his own era. More important, he examines the lasting consequences of Roosevelt’s actions—the legacies of big government, expanded presidential power, and foreign interventionism that plague us today.

Bully Boy reveals:

• How Roosevelt, the celebrated “trust-buster,” actually promoted monopolies

• How this self-proclaimed champion of conservation caused untold environmental destruction

• How TR expanded presidential power and brought us big government

• How he heralded in the era of government regulation, handicapping employers, destroying jobs, and harming consumers

• How he established the dangerous precedent of pushing America into other people’s wars even when our own national interests aren’t at stake

• How this crusader for “pure food” launched loony campaigns against margarine, corn syrup, and Coca-Cola

• How Roosevelt inspired the campaign to enact a federal income tax that was supposedly a tax on the rich but became a people’s tax

Bully Boy is both a groundbreaking look at a pivotal time in America’s history and a powerful explanation of how so many of our modern troubles began.

From the Hardcover edition.
The Crown Publishing Group; August 2006
ISBN 9780307347558
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Bully Boy
Author: Jim Powell

Theodore Roosevelt believed that if only politicians had enough power, they could solve the world's problems. Heralding the era of big government, he urged "far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country." Although Abraham Lincoln dramatically expanded the power of the federal government during wartime, the peacetime expansion of federal power began with Theodore Roosevelt. Disregarding the dismal history of arbitrary and oppressive government, he declared, "I think [the presidency] should be a very powerful office, and I think the President should be a very strong man who uses without hesitation every power the position yields." At another point he said, "I believe in a strong executive. I believe in power."

Where did these beliefs originate? The defining event of Theodore Roosevelt's life was the American Civil War. It showed how a powerful federal government could forge people into a single nation. As the Harvard-educated poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote, "every man feels himself a part, sensitive and sympathetic, of a vast organism."

During the war, federal spending expanded by a factor of 20. Even after postwar military cutbacks, the U.S. army remained about 50 percent larger than it had been before the war. Postwar federal spending was four or five times higher than before the war, and spending never returned to prewar levels. War debts forced the federal government and state governments to scramble for tax revenues. Rather than pay off its debts, the federal government spent substantial sums to finance pensions for Civil War veterans and schemes such as a transcontinental railroad.

During the postwar years, many Americans looked to government for solutions to their problems. In 1865, Illinois governor Richard Yates remarked that "The war . . . has tended, more than any other event in the history of our country, to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that 'the best government is that which governs least.' The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate provision of the government over every material interest of society."

Before the Civil War, the most revered of the American Founders was Thomas Jefferson. His antislavery writings had inspired the abolitionists, and his other writings--especially the Declaration of Independence--articulated a compelling vision of a libertarian, democratic society with a government of strictly limited powers. But after the war, Jefferson's reputation plummeted. Nobody wanted to hear about Jefferson, who had defended the right to secede from the Union, after some 625,000 people had been killed in the war to preserve the Union. As Theodore Roosevelt's contemporary, the historian Henry Adams, remarked: It was "always safe to abuse Jefferson."

After the Civil War, the most revered Founder was Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's secretary of the Treasury, who championed a strong central government. Hamilton helped establish a central bank and managed federal finances to make possible an expansion of government power. His efforts to impose a federal excise tax on whiskey--part of his plan to have the federal government assume responsibility for paying off state debts after the Revolutionary War--triggered the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion among Pennsylvania farmers. The writer and editor George W. Curtis wrote a friend: "Have you thought what a vindication this [Civil War] is of Alexander Hamilton? He was one of our truly great men, as Jefferson was the least of the truly great." Henry Cabot Lodge, for many years one of Theodore Roosevelt's best friends, produced a biography of Hamilton and an edition of his writings. Roosevelt declared, "I am a Hamiltonian in my governmental views, especially with reference to the need of the exercise of broad powers by the National Government."

Child of the Civil War

Theodore Roosevelt's own family had split views about the Civil War. Born on October 27, 1858, in his family's New York City house at 28 East Twentieth Street, Roosevelt was a toddler when President Lincoln authorized the attack against the South. Roosevelt's maternal grandmother Martha Stewart Elliott was from Georgia, her daughter Martha Bulloch--Roosevelt's mother--supported the South, and a number of her relatives served in the Confederate army. But his father Theodore Roosevelt Sr. supported the North.

Roosevelt was delighted that the North won. "For the rest of his life," observed biographer Kathleen Dalton, "Theodore expressed powerful emotion when he argued for the constructive effects of the Civil War. He saw it as an apocalyptic battle of the faithful against the forces of evil, which was the view promoted by Protestant clergymen who infused the war with biblical meaning. They taught that from the spilling of blood sins would be remitted."

Roosevelt, however, was ashamed that his father had paid a substitute to fight for him during the Civil War. Although this practice was perfectly legal, young Theodore considered it a blot on the family name, and he resolved to somehow distinguish himself in combat. But he was a frail child who suffered from asthma. Theodore Sr., a businessman and philanthropist managing enterprises his own father had developed, tried many things with his son before he decided that the best bet was vigorous physical exercise. Young Theodore lifted weights, pursued gymnastics, took wrestling lessons, learned how to swim, rode horses, hiked, and more. His asthma became less of an issue but was never completely eliminated.

At fourteen, Roosevelt found that he enjoyed killing wild animals, and he was given a double-barreled shotgun. The family traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. In Egypt, for instance, hunting was a highlight. He recalled, "I have had great enjoyment from the shooting here, as I have procured between one and two hundred skins."

An avid reader, particularly of history, Roosevelt favored violent stories with heroes and warfare. In 1876 he entered Harvard College, America's oldest college though not yet the rigorous institution it would later become. At Harvard, Roosevelt met Henry Cabot Lodge, who was teaching history with meager success. When students were no longer forced to take his course, enrollment plunged from fifty to three. While still an undergraduate, Roosevelt began work on his first book, The Naval War of 1812. He blamed that war on Thomas Jefferson's failure to build an adequate navy. Roosevelt's writing portrayed fighting as something glorious. Biographer H. W. Brands remarked that the book was "a story of war by one who obviously had never witnessed or experienced the real thing."

In February 1878, Roosevelt was shocked by his father's death, at age forty-six, from cancer. The estate yielded young Theodore an annual income of about $8,00024--enough, in those days, for a comfortable life. On his twenty-second birthday he married his neighbor Alice Lee, whom Brands described as "tall and athletic, with wide, pale blue-gray eyes, long golden curls, a pert, slightly upturned nose, a dainty mouth, and a bright, ready smile (friends and relatives called her 'Sunshine')." Six months later, Roosevelt enrolled at Columbia University Law School. He didn't like corporate law, in particular the caveat emptor principle ("let the buyer beware"), which applied even more to politicians than to consumer goods. He and Alice traveled to Europe. A highlight of the trip was their visit to Napoleon's tomb. "I do not think there is a more impressive sepulcher on earth than the tomb," he remarked. "It is grandly simple." Already Roosevelt was apparently an admirer of the French dictator and conqueror.

Hanging Out with Politicians

After two years, Roosevelt lost interest in law and dropped out of law school. He began to hang out with local politicians. About once a week, he visited Morton Hall, a Fifty-ninth Street saloon where officeholders and aspiring officeholders discussed schemes for the next election. There he met Joseph Murray, a former functionary in the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine. Murray, who had bolted to the Republicans, needed someone to run for the New York State Assembly from the Twenty-first District. Roosevelt was interested, and in November 1881 he was elected.

In Albany, Roosevelt found himself surrounded by so much corruption that he ought to have learned that government was an unlikely means of doing good. According to Brands, "The worst grafters could be found introducing the most stringent anticorporate regulatory schemes, only to abandon them in committee when the required contributions came in. At other times the same legislators could give the most impassioned speeches against obviously crooked bills, and then, after similar reconsideration by the corporations, attach cosmetically appealing but essentially meaningless amendments and vote in favor."

Ignoring the corruption around him, Roosevelt made a name for himself by joining a campaign to extract more tax revenue from Manhattan Elevated, a mass transit company. He considered higher taxes a "progressive" measure. At first, he had the courage to demand an investigation of Judge Thomas Westbrook, accused of accepting payoffs to support the takeover of Manhattan Elevated by speculator Jay Gould. There was an investigation, but, aided by some bribery, a majority of the Judiciary Committee determined that Westbrook hadn't done anything wrong. Roosevelt later acknowledged that he might have been wrong.

In January 1883 Roosevelt was elected Speaker of the Assembly and soon found himself making compromises. He voted for price controls on subway fares--the "Five Cent Bill" aimed to reduce the fare from 10 cents to a nickel. New York's governor Grover Cleveland, however, believed the bill was unconstitutional and vetoed it. When Cleveland was hailed as a man of principle, Roosevelt acknowledged the error of his ways. Speaker Roosevelt's prestige took another hit when one of his Republican allies, Assemblyman Henry L. Sprague, was accused of corruption, including a charge that he asked legislators to vote on bills not once but a number of times.

Although Roosevelt considered himself a reformer, in 1884 he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate James Blaine, known for giving government jobs to as many of his cronies as possible and for accepting bribes to promote railroad land grants--the opposite of what Roosevelt supposedly stood for. During the presidential campaign, Roosevelt hammered Blaine's opponent Grover Cleveland for belonging to the Democratic Party, which he blamed for the South's seceding from the Union and provoking the Civil War.

Roosevelt ought to have learned that power corrupts and that government could never be counted on to do good, but somehow he reached the opposite conclusion. He ran for mayor of New York City in 1886 and came in third, partly because many Republicans believed the Democratic candidate Abram S. Lee was a better bet to defeat the radical candidate Henry George, who hoped to solve social problems by imposing a single tax on land. Two years later, Roosevelt campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison. Democrat Grover Cleveland won a majority of the votes cast, but Harrison won a majority of electoral votes and therefore the election. Roosevelt wanted a job with the new administration in Washington. His preference was for something in the State Department, where he could become involved with foreign affairs.

From the Hardcover edition.
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