In his engaging new book, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics, Michael Wolraich provides a meticulously researched look into the power struggle that created the progressive movement and changed the history of America. At the turn of the century, Republican rebels such as Governor Robert La Follette of Wisconsin confronted President Roosevelt and railed against the corruption of the federal government. Initially, Roosevelt saw leaders like La Follette as a nuisance. But he would soon embrace La Follette’s tactics, and use them to wage war against the conservatives who controlled Congress.
What follows is an excerpt of Unreasonable Men. You can purchase the full book here.
WASHINGTON, DC, MAY 30, 1904
From Theodore Roosevelt’s point of view, Governor La Follette was a nuisance. Roosevelt’s eyes were fixed on the next election, six months away. Winning was not just a political goal; it was a point of honor. His accession to the White House had been a fluke, an accidental consequence of President McKinley’s assassination. He wanted to prove that he could win the presidency in his own right.
The schism in Madison threatened this prize. His friend Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, advised him that the Wisconsin situation was dangerous. If one of the factions bolted the national Republican ticket, he might lose the state’s 13 electoral votes. Butler blamed La Follette for the turmoil, adding, “He is more or less of a fanatic and cannot be conciliated by any ordinary methods.”
Roosevelt concurred. “I absolutely agree with you that the Wisconsin situation is very, very ugly,” he replied. “I am at my wits’ end how to keep out of it. In my judgment you read La Follette exactly right . . .” He did not oppose Wisconsin’s political reforms. To the contrary, he had established a reputation for taking on corrupt political bosses and powerful corporations. But he neither liked nor trusted Governor La Follette, whom he regarded as unbalanced and dangerous to the Republican Party.
For Roosevelt, balance was paramount. In any controversy, he invariably positioned himself between the poles. If he gave a speech criticizing rich “plutocrats,” he qualified it by censuring the “mob” as well. When he attacked “bosses” and “political machines,” he made sure to denounce “demagogues” and “fanatics” in the next sentence. Born into old New York money, he disdained the populist agitation that was sweeping the West. “I have a horror of hysterics or sentimentality,” he explained. “All I want to do is cautiously to feel my way to see if we cannot make the general conditions of life a little easier, a little better.”
In addition to his temperamental aversion to populism, Roosevelt also had a practical reason to be cautious. He knew the Republican-controlled Congress would never agree to radical changes. To pass legislation, he had to compromise with congressional leaders. “The reformers complain because I will not go to the absurdity of refusing to deal with machine Senators,” he protested to journalist Ray Stannard Baker, “but I must work with the material that the states send me.”
Even Roosevelt’s celebrated trust-busting exemplified his pragmatism. In the late 1800s, a rash of corporate mergers had concentrated the nation’s thriving industries into giant holding companies known as trusts. Like many Americans, Roosevelt worried about the trusts’ political influence and anticompetitive practices. Taking advantage of an antitrust law from 1890, he shocked the business community by suing the Northern Securities Company, the largest railroad corporation in the world. The pioneering lawsuit established his reputation as a legendary trust-buster, but after breaking up Northern Securities, he eased off his assault. Employing the threat of litigation as a “big stick,” he worked quietly with corporate executives to reform rather than to dissolve other large conglomerates.
His interactions with congressional leaders were similarly accommodating. In return for a free hand to conduct foreign diplomacy, he refrained from challenging Congress’s purview over domestic legislation. His first term was not without legislative accomplishments, including the establishment of the Department of Commerce and Labor, but he achieved them by cooperating with recalcitrant Republican leaders, and the legislation’s impact was modest. For the most part, he left Congress to plod along as it had for years, complacently passing small-bore appropriations and other minor legislation while substantive reform bills strangled silently in committee.
Among the Republican legislators, Roosevelt held a particularly high regard for John Coit Spooner, the Wisconsin senator who led the Stalwart faction. Spooner’s wire-rim pince-nez and thick mat of hair gave him the appearance of an absented-minded professor, but Roosevelt knew him to be one of the sharpest minds and most powerful politicians in Washington. He was indebted to him for helping to pass the Panama Canal treaty and other diplomatic initiatives. “What a trump Spooner is,” he wrote. “He has done so much for me.”
One week after Wisconsin’s Republican convention, Spooner visited the White House to ask a favor of his own. The Stalwarts had elected him to represent them at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. La Follette’s Half-Breeds had selected their own representatives. There could only be one Wisconsin delegation, so the Republican National Committee would have to choose between the two factions. Spooner urged Roosevelt to stay out of the contest, arguing that presidential dignity required him to remain above the fray. Roosevelt, who was anxious to avoid entanglement in the affair, agreed.
A few days later, a Half-Breed delegation arrived in Washington, begging for his assistance. They pointed out that the Republican National Committee was biased against them. The committee chairman, Postmaster General Henry C. Payne, was a Wisconsin Stalwart, and the other members were on his side. Without presidential intervention, the committee would certainly authenticate the Stalwart delegation. But Roosevelt declined to interfere. Echoing Spooner’s argument, he insisted that the President should not involve himself in state politics.
His hands clean, he hoped that the matter would soon be put to rest. Years later, he would come to see the conflict in another light. By then, he would be a different man. And America would be a different country.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
From Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics by Michael Wolraich. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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