Noted expert speaks on Theodore Roosevelt’s impact on U.S. policy

John Gable, Executive Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA), gave a lecture entitled “Big Stick, Square Deal: the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt,” on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at the Faculty Club. Gable has directed the TRA since 1974 and is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Roosevelt’s life and presidency.

He was brought to campus as a guest speaker for “Presidential Leadership: Washington to FDR,” a Winter Study course taught by Professors James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn.

After an introduction by Dunn, Gable began his lecture with a brief description of the architecture of the White House at the turn of the 20th century. Gable sought to expand the metaphor of Roosevelt’s impact on how the building looks today to his shaping of modern American society.

At the beginning of Roosevelt’s tenure, Gable explained, the White House was beginning to show its age; he likened its internal appearance to a shabby and smaller version of a European palace. To remedy the problem, two major renovation plans were considered: one in which additional wings would be built around the original building to create a sprawling palace-like complex and another in which the building would be converted into a museum or presidential office space.

Roosevelt, however, rejected both plans and decided to gut the interior and construct an inconspicuous wing to add space to the complex. Roosevelt commissioned Charles F. McKim to remodel and redesign the interior of the house, and today’s White House remains true to Roosevelt’s basic floor plan. The addition is now recognized as the “West Wing.”

The exterior of the White House was left unchanged, and the West Wing blends unobtrusively into the landscape. Roosevelt called the changes “a restoration,” but in reality he fundamentally changed the building, even to the extent of changing its official name from the Executive Mansion (which he thought pretentious) to the simpler-sounding White House. “It was a reinvention of the White House; from top to bottom, from east to west, things were changed,” said Gable.

Gable’s description of Roosevelt’s changes to the White House acted as a clear metaphor for Roosevelt’s presidency. While Roosevelt did not change the principles of American government, he changed American society at a fundamental level; he conducted and laid the groundwork for reform. Notably, Roosevelt created the federally-overseen National Park system, implemented guidelines for the production and efficacy of food and drugs and reformed many parts of American life that we now take for granted.

Gable likened TR’s rejection of the existing two plans for the Executive Mansion to his rejection of the prevailing ideas for American government at the time. When he assumed the Presidency, the two fervently defended ideologies were laissez-faire capitalism, which essentially entails a pure capitalist model in which the market is not regulated at all by the government; and socialism, in which all industries and markets are regulated by the government.

“Laissez-faire was the philosophy of most of the leaders of the Republican party, many of the leaders of the Democratic party, and of course, the titans of big business,” said Gable. Socialists were gaining support around the country among the intelligentsia, as were groups advocating a single tax and other improbable schemes.

Roosevelt rejected the extremes of both right and left and forged a middle road ideology of partial government regulation that continues to dominate American politics today. “This middle road was not a compromise between two extremes, but rather was a distinct philosophy, centrist but left of the center, one which by the time of TR’s second administration was called Progressivism,” said Gable. Clearly illustrating the metaphor, Gable said that just as the exterior of the White House was preserved while gutting the interior, so did Roosevelt’s Progressivism preserve the principles of the American political tradition while transforming the office of the Presidency and radically expanding the powers, functions, and agenda of the national government. While Roosevelt passed off Progressivism as a centrist path, in reality Roosevelt’s actions moved American politics firmly towards the left in relation to the prevailing attitudes in American government.

Gable then delved into Roosevelt’s political beliefs. He branded Roosevelt’s philosophy as “Democratic Nationalism,” which melded the previously irreconcilable philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson favored states’ rights, laissez-faire capitalism, the common man, and a weak federal government dominated by Congress.

Conversely, Hamilton supported a strong federal government that possessed a powerful military, a conservative judiciary, and a society with clear class-based stratification. Roosevelt, who was fiercely nationalistic and believed in an ascendant American nation, blended the two, creating a strong federal government that was clearly dominated by the Executive branch. At the same time, he also attempted to push through massive reforms that favored the working class at the detriment of the super-rich.

“While I am a Jeffersonian in my gentleman faith in democracy and popular government, I am Hamiltonian in my governmental views, especially with reference to the need of the exercise of broad powers by the national government,” said Roosevelt about himself.

Gable then spoke at length about the effects of Jefferson and Hamilton’s ideas on Roosevelt’s political thoughts. Gable also extolled Roosevelt’s importance as a focal point for the transformation of American political philosophy, whose principles of equality of opportunity, natural conservation, and government regulation are still cherished today. He also mentioned Roosevelt’s knowledge of American history and his use of its lessons during the course of his political career.

Throughout the course of the lecture, Gable used anecdotes that illustrated Roosevelt’s various beliefs and his agenda, such as his use of the now-commonplace West African proverb used to describe his foreign policy (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”) and his use of the “Square Deal” slogan to advance his domestic agenda of social justice. However, Gable spent little time on Roosevelt’s imperfections, such as the President’s tendency to sermonize and his belief in an absolute morality that caused him to become increasingly inflexible in the later years of his life.

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