Channelling George Washington: Roosevelt v. Roosevelt

Historians/History




Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“I’ve been thinking about a large historical comparison. Do you want to explore it with me?”

“I’m game as usual, Mr. President. What is it?”

“Theodore Roosevelt vs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

“That IS a challenge. Where shall we start?”

“They had very different childhoods.  Teddy was a runty asthmatic kid who seemed overshadowed by his far more handsome brother, Elliott, and his two lively intelligent sisters, Anna and Corinne.  Not until he went west for several years in his twenties did he become the healthy and dynamic man we remember.  Franklin was tall, good-looking and his mother’s only son—and darling boy.”

“What about brainpower?”           

“When we look at their records at Harvard College, Teddy is far ahead.  He graduated Phi Beta Kappa.  Franklin got a gentleman’s C from start to finish.  He was no scholar.”

“That doesn’t prove he was stupid.”

“I agree.  There are many kinds of intelligence.  But scholarship doesn’t hurt when you’re in training to be president.  Theodore was a reader and thinker.  He wrote superb history books, such as The Naval War of 1812, that are still read today.  There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of Franklin reading more than one serious book.  He preferred murder mysteries.”

“What was the serious book?”

“It was Jefferson and Hamilton, by a now forgotten and mostly discredited historian named Claude Bowers.  He trashed Ham as a national menace and portrayed Tom as ten feet tall and the savior of the republic.  In 1924 FDR gave it a rave review in the New York World, one of the nation’s major newspapers.  He praised it for reminding the demoralized Democratic Party—they had just lost two presidential elections in a row by landslides—of the importance of its roots in Jeffersonianism.  For FDR this was a breathtaking discovery.  He called the book a ‘fair-minded history of the Federalist era.’”

Too bad Teddy had died in 1919.  What would he have thought of it?”

“Teddy would have ridiculed it as an absurd distortion of the historical record, which is what it was.  But for FDR’s fellow Democrats, who knew as little about American history as he did, his review was inspiring.  He said the book made him realize the struggle for the future in 1920s America was still about whether the Hamiltonian ‘moneyed class’ would continue to lord it over the Jeffersonian ‘working masses.’”

The New Republic laughed at the idea of making Jefferson the Democratic Party’s hero in 1924.  They said it belonged to musical comedy rather than realistic politics.”

“Luck—or history—was on FDR’s side.  In 1929 the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  Suddenly Frank’s simplistic division between moneyed class and working masses started to sound plausible.”

“Was that when FDR began thinking of himself as a second Theodore Roosevelt?

“The roots are starkly visible to anyone who reads history.  Teddy proclaimed a ‘Square Deal’ for the American people. FDR announced his program was a ‘New Deal.’  TR had criticized ‘malefactors of great wealth’—a dig at the excessive arrogance of the millionaires of his era.  This justified FDR’s hostility to Big Business.  But Teddy was never mentioned by Franklin or his New Dealers.  Instead it was Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson who justified everything.”

“Didn’t the New Deal turn Jeffersonianism on its head?  He was for as little federal government as possible.  Before the Constitutional Convention, he said the country could be governed by a four or five man committee of Congress.”

“They did more than turn Tom on his head. They seized his favorite idea, ‘The earth belongs to the living’ and made it their slogan.  None of them apparently had a clue that Jemmy Madison had totally demolished the idea in a long letter to Tom while he was still in France, falling in love with the French Revolution.  That enabled them to get away with creating a Hamiltonian centralized government with a Jeffersonian label.”                   

Both Roosevelts embraced the idea of a strong presidency?”

“Unquestionably.  Teddy launched the National Park System by presidential directive.  Ditto for the Panama Canal.  He did wonders to beef up the U.S. Navy and sent a flotilla called ‘The Great White Fleet’ on a world tour to let everyone know America was now a major player on the international scene.  In 1907 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between warring Japan and Russia.”

“Teddy doesn’t come close to Franklin in the presidential power game.  The New Deal created a blizzard of government programs to get the country out of the Great Depression.  The National Recovery Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and so forth.”

The trouble is, an awful lot of these programs didn’t work. In 1937, American national income was only 85.8 percent of the 1929 high water mark while England’s was 124.3 percent.  Chile, Sweden and Australia had growth rates in the 20 percent range The United States figure was a dismal -7 percent.  We had a stock market crash in 1937 that sent unemployment ballooning.”

“How did FDR react to that development?”

“He started calling businessmen traitors who were sabotaging the New Deal.  One of his mouthpieces, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, claimed the nation was still controlled by sixty wealthy families and was lurching toward ‘an enslaved America’ This did nothing to encourage business investment.  We were still mired in the Great Depression when World War II began.”

“But FDR remained personally popular.”

“He had marvelous charisma.  And superb speechwriters.”

“Would Teddy have run for a third term in 1940?”

“I doubt it.  He could have run for another term in 1908.  He had succeeded the assassinated McKinley in 1901, so he did not have two complete terms.  But Teddy felt his first term was so close to a full one, he didn’t want to set a bad example by staying in power too long.  He had too much respect for my example of limiting the presidency to two terms.”

“But he ran for a third term in 1912.”

That’s when he started to lose his political grip.  As the candidate of the Progressive Party, he backed all sorts of crazy ideas, such as the right to override Supreme Court decisions by a popular vote.”

“FDR didn’t hesitate to run for a third term immediately after two very full terms.”                    

“Knowing so little history, he had minimal respect for American traditions.  Within a few years of his death, the American people rebuked him by passing the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms.”

“Is there an example of how FDR’s lack of knowledge of history distorted his judgment?”

“In late 1944, he announced that his policy of unconditional surrender, which he had concocted in 1943 for Nazi Germany, was going to be applied to Japan.  He justified this decision at a press conference by claiming he was following the example of Ulysses S. Grant, who had forced Robert E. Lee to surrender unconditionally at Appomattox.  This was totally untrue.  Grant never so much as mentioned unconditional surrender at Appomattox.  Instead he gave General Lee honorable—and generous—surrender terms.  But the media’s knowledge of history was so minute—or their awe of the president was so enormous—no one corrected him.  FDR’s gross ignorance on this matter led to the use of the atomic bomb to force the Japanese to surrender.”

“What would Teddy have done about Japan?”

“We probably wouldn’t have gone to war with them in the first place.  He never would have made FDR’s awful mistake of thinking the Japanese were pushovers.  Teddy respected and admired the Japanese.  During his presidency, he called war between the two nations ‘unthinkable.’”

“How can we sum up this comparison?”

“They were both great presidents.  Perhaps the best way to regard them is through the lens of Teddy Roosevelt’s words about men who throw themselves into the political struggles of their eras.  Compared to such men, Teddy said, critics who point out how strong men can stumble don’t count.  

‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short…because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms…who spends himself for a worthy cause, who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails at last he fails while daring greatly…”

“I’m sure every American president would like that as his epitaph.”

“I would accept it with pride –and gratitude.”

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