Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate, Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most colorful presidents to serve the Republic.  He was a rancher in the North Dakota Badlands, led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill and received a Medal of Honor for his gallantry, the only President with such a distinction.  While climbing a Mountain in the Adirondacks of New York in 1901, word reached Vice President Theodore Roosevelt that the condition of President McKinley had rapidly deteriorated after an assassination attempt a week earlier.  The next day, McKinley was dead, and Roosevelt was sworn into office as president.  Roosevelt brought an ideology to the Office of the President that was a refutation of the American Founding, Progressivism.  This ideology included a dramatic expansion of power vested in one person, the president.

The brilliance of the American Founding lay in the delegation of sovereignty to representatives selected by the people.  Unlike most regimes of the day- indeed many regimes today- the American government was created so that the power of the government was laid out in an explicit fashion.  The power of the President is specifically laid out in Article 2 of the Constitution, with the Tenth Amendment reserving rights not enumerated to the federal government, to the states and people, respectively.  Madison best summarizes this in Federalist 45, where he wrote “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

The progressive constitutional theory Roosevelt brought to the Presidency turned Madison’s enumeration of powers on its head.  Roosevelt believed “that the executive power was limited only by specific restrictions and prohibitions appearing in the Constitution or imposed by the Congress under its Constitutional Powers.”  Presidential power, here, is no longer defined by what it is allowed to do.  Instead, executive power is unlimited, with the exception of specific constraints; the President could “do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or the laws.”

Outside of breaking with the doctrine of enumerated powers that Madison and the Founders envisioned, Theodore Roosevelt claims that his theory of executive power is justified as addressing a national need or crisis.  Roosevelt, “acted for the public welfare, [he] acted for the common well-being of all people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary…”  Later in the selection, he wrote, “I believed in invoking the National power with absolute freedom for every National need…”  The problem with the “public welfare,” “common well-being,” and “National need,” is that these things do not form a principal upon which to act.  They are inconsistent and undefined.  What constitutes the “common well-being?”  Is this not subjective at best, and at its most dangerous, an arbitrary exercise of power?  There is a certainty that crisis, whether economic troubles, security threats, or other, will arise, and republican government and slow deliberation within the Congress will not be up to the challenge, and rapid action must be taken.  We can make the slippery slope argument that the consolidation and exercise of power can lend to despotism.  But, can we not make a less hypothetical argument that the consolidation and exercise of power in the executive branch, headed by a sole individual is simply wrong, and contrary to democracy?

Even the most laudatory of histories on Theodore Roosevelt refer to him as Theodore Rex, the “Roosevelt who would be king.”  Unlike his future cousin, though, he would not dominate the government for nearly so long.  Regardless, the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt set the groundwork for the dramatic expansion of federal involvement both in the public and private lives of Americans today, far afield from the visions of the republic the Founders had in mind.  There have been instances when the use of unilateral power by the executive branch has had, arguably, salutary effects: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, even Roosevelt’s establishment of the National Park System.  But, we must be cautious in such an exercise and consolidation of power, even when the intentions are noble.

Read The Presidency: Making An Old Party Progressive, by Theodore Roosevelt here:

James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter @JamesLegee.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

1 reply
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    WOW! This entire series of readings about the rise of progressivism is fascinating! NOW I have a better understanding of how this idea gained control of our government, and expect for brief periods (Reagen years comes to mind), never really lost its foothold. Re-education as much as education, is the key to letting people know what our true Founding principles are and that it is still WE the People, not the imperial president!


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