The Constitution be damned: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Teddy Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore, but he sure as hell shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. Perhaps this is why the Younger Bush loved him so much, as Bush (like his right-hand Dick Cheney) disdained congressional checks on his authority. Dubya wasn’t candid about this, however, and he probably wasn’t even honest with himself on the issue. More probable is that Bush admired Roosevelt for his big-government conservativism. Most of the big-government “progressive” spenders have been Democrats, but in Teddy the Younger Bush found a kindred Republican. Roosevelt increased the number of government employees by a whopping 50%; Bush too was a flaming liberal in matters of domestic largesse.

In any case, Theodore Roosevelt set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to go beyond, or ignore, the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by the Speaker of the House for having “no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license”. Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. He thought he was above the law with unlimited powers. That mentality caught on like a contagion with later presidents, like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and especially in the post World War II era, where executive overreach has often been the White House norm.

Donald Trump, however, is the first president since Roosevelt to be so candid in actually stating that he can “do whatever he wants” as president. Like Roosevelt, Trump has gone through his term like an executive bully, unmindful of anything the law might have to say about his actions. This is not to say that Roosevelt and Trump have committed the most egregious overreaches or the worst Constitutional offenses (those belong undeniably to Wilson and FDR), but they are certainly the two presidents who have been the most drunk on their own self-regard.

That drunken narcissism showed in all three areas of Roosevelt’s policies — peace, prosperity, and liberty — and I’ll go through each of them.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Roosevelt mediated a peace settlement between Russia and Japan to end the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he was not a peaceful president. He enlarged the military and engaged in numerous incidents of unnecessary gunboat diplomacy. He was addicted to solving problems at gunpoint and had a bloodthirsty streak. He had fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War (1898), and one soldier described him as “reveling in victory and gore” during the charge up a hill at San Juan Heights. Jackson Lears (a professor of cultural history at Rutgers University) ranks Teddy Roosevelt the sixth worst president of all time, because Roosevelt actually “celebrated the regenerative effects of military violence.”

And to legitimate his violent actions, he began by perverting the Monroe Doctrine.

Monroe Doctrine Perverted

Since 1823, the idea of the Monroe Doctrine was that the U.S. and Europe were to remain separate spheres of influence. Specifically, the United States

  • would not interfere in already existing European colonies
  • would not interfere in European affairs
  • would forbid European colonization of new areas
  • would forbid European recolonization of former colonies

That was all fine and well until Teddy added the corollary that the United States should intervene in neighboring countries to stop any perceived wrongdoing, instability, or weakness that could become an excuse for European intervention. Bluntly speaking, these vague criteria meant that the U.S. could invade and occupy neighboring countries in order to preempt others from invading and occupying those countries. The U.S. didn’t have to wait for a European power to actually try intervening or invading; all that was needed was a loosely perceived threat. The hypocrisy of this corollary is gargantuan, for obviously the countries in question would see little difference between American or European occupiers.

Venezuela

Roosevelt’s most dangerous act of gunboat diplomacy was his first one in 1902-03, when Venezuela didn’t pay its debt to a German-British consortium. The two governments threatened a naval blockade until the money was paid. Both Germany and Britain made clear to the U.S. that they only wanted debt payment and not any foothold in Latin America. But when the naval blockade escalated, Roosevelt accused Germany of threatening war and got belligerent, until the blockade was lifted. He had recklessly courted war with Germany and Britain over an unlikely possibility of Germany establishing a minor toehold in Latin America.

Panama

What is today seen as Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishment was in fact his most disgraceful offense. He fomented rebellion in the Panamanian province of Columbia, and supported it with U.S. troops, in order to steal territory for a future Panama Canal. The Spanish-American War (1898) had shown a need for the canal, and the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty (1901) paved the way for the U.S. to build it. But Roosevelt thought Columbia asked for too much money, and so he instigated a rebellion in Panama. He implied to the Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist their fight for independence. Panama declared its independence in November of 1903, and the US Navy impeded Colombian interference. The grateful Panamanians gave the U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone on February 23, 1904, for $10 million.

Roosevelt’s cabinet members were thoroughly disgusted. Secretary of War Elihu Root said to Roosevelt, “You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you are guilty of rape.” Former Secretary of State Richard Olney said, “For the first time in my life, I have to confess that I am ashamed of my country.” Other critics called Teddy’s grabbing of the canal zone a “sleek and underhanded piece of national bank robbery”. Roosevelt had thoroughly disgraced himself, and the United States, to save a few million dollars.

Other gunboat diplomacy episodes: Turkey, Morocco, and Cuba

In Turkey (1904), the sultan refused to grant U.S. missionaries the same privileges that European missionaries had. Roosevelt sent navy ships until the sultan capitulated. A lame and presumptuous reason to threaten violence if there ever was one.

In Morocco (1904), someone claiming to be a U.S. citizen was kidnapped by a terrorist named Raisuli, who demanded a large ransom from the sultan in charge of Morocco. Roosevelt sent the naval fleet to Morocco to bully the sultan into negotiating with Raisuli for the hostage’s release. It turned out the hostage was actually a Greek, and Roosevelt’s secretary of state wanted him to back off. But since Raisuli still believed the hostage was a U.S. citizen, Roosevelt felt that the kidnapper was insulting the United States, and thus American honor needed avenging. So he kept pressuring the sultan to negotiate with a terrorist (negotiating with terrorists is almost always bad policy), all for the sake of besmirched honor.

In Cuba (1906), an insurrection broke out, and both sides in the conflict appealed to the U.S. for intervention. A U.S. senator reminded Roosevelt that the U.S.-Cuban treaty gave the United States, not the president, the right to intervene and demanded that Roosevelt seek congressional approval before committing troops. Roosevelt retorted that the “situation was evolving too rapidly”, and — with considerable balls — also candidly admitted that he was trying to expand the powers of the presidency. True to his word (and his balls), he launched a full blown intervention in Cuba. The Constitution makes clear that the president can take military action on his own only when the nation is defending itself from attack. In this case, not only was there a negligible threat to U.S. security, Roosevelt’s action was an imperially offensive strike, not a defensive one. It was carried out to bring stability to a region, so that other foreign powers would not gain a toehold there. Roosevelt was way out of line, and his actions clearly unconstitutional.

The Great White Fleet

Roosevelt was ceaseless in his efforts to display a swaggering macho presence on the world stage, and all of his gunboat diplomatic efforts culminated in his launching of the Great White Fleet — sixteen navy battleships that sailed around the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The mission was nominally to make “courtesy” visits to many countries, but was in truth an unmistakable display of power — a warning to the world that the U.S. was not to be messed with.

The Philippines

The U.S. had won the Philippines in the Spanish-American War (1898), and when Roosevelt took office, the guerilla war from the Philippines insurrection was petering lout. He ordered military commanders to end the guerrilla war by any means necessary. They did this by burning entire villages; torturing and killing all Filipinos down to age ten; burning, whipping, and hanging the Filipinos by their thumbs. This caused a public shitstorm in the U.S., and Roosevelt tried to whitewash the whole incident, but there was no washing the blood from his hands. Another disgraceful legacy.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

To his credit, Roosevelt got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust; this land was used to create national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

The rest of his reforms left much to be desired. The Elkins Act (1903) amended the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to impose heavy fines on railroads that offered rebates to large companies, and upon the shippers who accepted the rebates. Roosevelt maintained that rebates were price discrimination against smaller companies that used the railroads, but price discrimination is a standard business practice. (Even the small guy gets a discount for buying in bulk.) It is reasonable that railroads would give discounts to secure large customers. The Hepburn Act (1906), gave the ICC the power to set “just and reasonable” rates, which is absurdly subjective. The act had far-reaching consequences in regulating the marketplace, blocking rate increases that the rail companies needed to make, and leading to the panic of 1907.

Roosevelt was also a trust-buster. Trust-busting is counterproductive and decreases healthy competition in business. Anti-trust laws usually allow politically well connected companies to break up or keep out large potential competitors from a particular market. Even Roosevelt admitted that the economy did better when big business operated most of it and the government stayed out, but he had a strong pro-regulation constituency. The anti-trust laws were applied using Roosevelt’s “greater good” argument, meaning that companies were sued not based on whether they broke the law, but on whether they were “good” or “bad” companies — which was flagrantly unconstitutional, certainly unfair, and didn’t do the economy much good either.

3. Liberty

Worst of all — as I prefaced at the top — was Roosevelt’s repeated flouting of the Constitution. He stated boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. The idea that the president is above the law and has virtually unlimited powers is extremely dangerous, and it cuts at the heart of what a republic stands for. Roosevelt was saying that a president can basically do anything which the Constitution doesn’t explicitly forbid him from doing. The founding fathers were rolling in their graves; the Tenth Amendment states specifically that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government reside either with the states or with the people.

Federal coercion in labor disputes

Roosevelt established federal coercion by intervening in a coal strike in 1902, threatening both sides by saying he would use the army to seize the mines if they didn’t accept arbitration. The Pennsylvania governor had told Roosevelt that no federal assistance was necessary, and Roosevelt admitted that as president he “had no right or duty to intervene in this way on legal grounds”. But he jolly well did so anyway, and he went so far as to order an army general to be ready to use force to stop the strike, throw out the coal operators, and seize the mines.

Congressmen were aghast at this, and James Watson demanded of Roosevelt: “What about the Constitution of the United States? What about seizing private property without due process of law?” To which Teddy hollered back — as if he were Jesus Christ debating the sabbath — that “the Constitution was made for the people, and not the people for the Constitution”. This stream of bullshit was nothing more than Theodore Roosevelt remolding the Constitution on the spot for his own purposes.

Appalling race relations

It is true that Roosevelt angered the South by inviting Booker T. Washington (a prominent African American author and educator) to the White House, which was the first time a black was entertained there. But no one should be fooled into thinking that Roosevelt wasn’t a racist, as he most certainly was.

He believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”. And he showed his contempt for those “inferiors” on a particular occasion, by requiring black soldiers to prove their innocence to avoid dishonorable discharges from the military. The black soldiers were being blamed for shooting up Brownsville, Texas, and killing one man and wounding another. Though the evidence pointed to the black soldiers being framed, Roosevelt — in outrageous contradiction to the American tradition of innocent-until-proven-guilty — said that if none of the African American soldiers admitted to shooting up the town, they would all be assumed to be guilty and all of them discharged. None of them did, and sure enough, Roosevelt discharged them all. He stood firmly by his decision in the resulting furor, and needles to say, his popularity in the black community was forever nuked.

He is also legendary for saying that “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian”, and that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are; and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Conclusion

Here is Teddy’s less than glamorous report card:

Peace. For peacefully mediating the Russo-Japanese War and the European competition over Morocco, Roosevelt deserves credit. But he must be severely downgraded for his ceaseless belligerence — the never-ending gunboat diplomacy, the fomenting of rebellion in Panama, the reckless courting of war with Germany in Venezuela, and sanctioning war crimes in the Philippines. Worst of all was his perversion of the Monroe Doctrine, which has had lasting consequences throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I score him 5 points for the two peaceful mediations. Aside from those two acts, there was hardly anything peaceful about Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.

Prosperity. His positive contributions for healthy meat, the proper labeling of food and drugs, and conservation of land must be weighed against the majority of his “progressive” policies that were harmful to the country. In particular, his pernicious regulation of business and trust busting contributed to the recession of 1907. I give him 12 points. He probably deserves less, but his positives for health and the environment carry considerable weight, in my view.

Liberty. For openly disdaining the Constitution, continually disregarding its imperatives, setting one horrible precedent after another, presuming that African Americans are guilty until proven innocent, and openly disdaining the human rights of Indians, he gets a putrid liberty score of 3.

Peace — 5/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 3/20

TOTAL SCORE = 20/60 = Bad

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