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Theodore Roosevelt: An Old West Sheriff in the White House

President Obama’s recent announcement that he will sign an executive order to prevent the nation’s police from using combat equipment that “militarizes” their function grates on the ear of law-and-order conservatives, who believe that maintaining an orderly society means that our elected leaders must sometimes take extreme measures to achieve that end. Understanding history, they remember that George Washington used an overwhelming force of 13,000 militiamen to smash the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” (a ragtag uprising of backwoods distillers who refused to pay the nation’s new tax of spirits) that flared up in western Pennsylvania in 1791. To hurl this many troops against unorganized malcontents who had burned the government tax collector’s home was massive overkill (500 trained soldiers could have easily put down the Lilliputian revolt), but not when measured by the larger goals the nation’s first president wanted to achieve in decisive, unequivocal fashion.

Washington’s bold action was critically important to the development of the country, establishing the power of the federal government during the nation’s fragile infancy and creating a beneficial precedent that violent disruptions to the civil order would not be tolerated in the new democratic republic. The Obama of his generation, Thomas Jefferson disapproved of President Washington’s police action, viewing it as a heavy-handed over-reaction to the reasonable complaints of those adversely affected by Alexander Hamilton’s new tax on spirits (Jefferson opposed the tax). Just as Obama sympathized with the criminal element which disturbed the peace of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland by caving in to complaints that “militarized” police had provoked violence in the streets, Jefferson sided with lawbreakers who claimed laws enacted by the nation’s duly elected government were tyrannical edicts that justified violent civil unrest.

In striking contrast to Obama and Jefferson stands Theodore Roosevelt, who was arguably the greatest law-and-order president in American history. In recent years, he has been vilified by many right wing pundits as a statist “progressive” (code for bleeding-heart “liberal”) hell bent on achieving “social justice” (a phrase he popularized) for the less well-off in the population. In truth, TR was a no-nonsense conservative cut from the mold of Washington—a hardheaded realist who had no naiveté about the dangers posed to society by the base passions of mankind. Like Washington, he looked with discomfort on the barbaric “tar and feather” tactics Sam Adams used to trigger the American Revolution and was sickened by the ferocious bloodletting perpetrated by the French Revolutionists. Fully embracing the Social Darwinism that was so popular during his own time, he saw society as a fierce “survival of the fittest” competition that would devolve into destructive anarchy if the restraints of civilization were removed.

From his denunciation of the Governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, for pardoning anarchist bombers who triggered the infamous Haymarket labor riot in 1885, to his enthusiastic support for President Grover Cleveland’s use of the U.S. Army to put down the Pullman Strike in 1895, TR consistently supported aggressive means to stamp out and prevent civil unrest. As President of the United States, he believed it was his duty to use whatever means necessary to maintain societal order. There can be no doubt that he would have used the military to quell domestic disturbances during his presidential administration if the need had arisen, as plainly shown by his order to General Scofield in 1902 to use the U.S. Army to end the Anthracite Coal Strike if a peaceful settlement could not be reached in the labor dispute.

Not surprisingly, “police” was one of TR’s favorite words. He used it most famously in 1904 when he announced that the United States would henceforth become the “policeman” of the Western hemisphere, that it would “spank” disorderly Latin American nations that “misbehaved.” The news of this extraordinary “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine produced howls of outrage among the nation’s liberals that the paternalistic decree was insensitive to the feelings of the people who lived south of the border. TR brushed aside the criticism. He feared that if the United States did not exercise hegemonic control over Latin America that European powers (especially Germany) would fill the power void and begin to carve colonies out of South America just as they had carved up Africa during the previous generation.

The “Roosevelt Corollary” proved to be one of TR’s greatest mistakes during his presidency, giving birth to a spirit of hostility in Latin America toward the United States that lingers to this day (Franklin D. Roosevelt was wise to repudiate his predecessor’s corollary when he announced his mild “Good Neighbor” policy in the 1930s). Misguided and abrasive, TR’s decree is nevertheless a useful lens that lets us view the real man. He believed that the maintenance and spread of civilization required that the great nations of the world exercise hegemonic control over their respective “spheres of influence”, “policing” weaker nations that fell within their region of power. Thus his strident advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine and his implicit belief that Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan had similar, albeit unstated, doctrines that gave them license to act as regional hegemons.

The enthusiasm TR showed during his presidency for “policing” those who “misbehaved” was evident early in his career. During the mid-1880s when he was not yet 30 years old, he appointed himself “Deputy Sheriff” of the territory around his cattle ranch in the Dakota Badlands and quickly showed that it was much more than a paper title, tracking down and bringing to justice horse thieves in a dramatic incident that he made sure the nation’s newspapers noticed. Possessing a genius for self-promotion rivaled in our own day only by Donald Trump, he often used flamboyant “police” actions like this to shine the spotlight on himself so that the American people would see him as a heroic opponent of criminality in all its forms.

TR saw himself as a Sheriff of the Old West—a throwback to the rough-and-ready lawmen who had administered frontier justice with a cool head and a loaded gun before civilization spread itself over the continent. Once he reached the White House, he went out of his way to give Bat Masterson (the Sheriff of Dodge City), Pat Garrett (the lawman who killed Billy the Kid) and Seth Bullock (the Sheriff who cleaned up Deadwood) government jobs, declaring that they “correspond to those Vikings, like Hastings and Rollo, who finally served the cause of civilization.” He understood that his Old West heroes had often violated the letter of the law in order to keep the peace, but he was anything but a legalistic Pharisee obsessed with narrow definitions. He forgave their transgressions just as he forgave his own in the same regard throughout his political career because they were, he believed, just like him—righteous men who could be trusted to bend the rules put in place to restrain lesser men.

During TR’s time as Police Commissioner of New York City (1895-1897) he acted in the spirit of these grim lawmen of the Old West, cracking down on crime and vice in unprecedented fashion. He started with his own police force, taking to the city’s streets after midnight to catch police officers sleeping on the job. Next, he enforced the so-called “Raines Law,” which prohibited saloons from selling alcohol on Sundays. The extraordinary action infuriated the city’s large alcohol consuming population, especially German-Americans linked to the brewing industry and “Tammany Hall” Democrats, who used their control of the police to operate an extortion racket that extracted financial kickbacks from saloon owners, who were allowed to open for business on Sunday if they paid off the local Tammany machine boss.

Enforcing laws that others ignored was one of the principal drivers of TR’s career, helping him make newspaper headlines and bolster his image as a corruption fighter. He was in many respects the Eliot Ness of his day—incorruptible and indefatigable in his determination to take down the bad guys. As a U.S. Civil Service Commissioner between 1889 and 1893 he even defied his boss, President Benjamin Harrison, by insisting that the Pendleton Act (which Congress had enacted to curtail the “spoils system”) must be enforced. When Harrison refused to fully enforce the law (he needed the “spoils system” fully operational to win re-election), TR took his case directly to the American people, engaging in a nasty public feud with the chief “spoils-man” of the Harrison administration, Postmaster General John Wanamaker.

Of course, the best example of TR’s enforcing moribund laws came in 1902 when he directed his Attorney General to bring suit against J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities railroad combination. Up until then the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 had been ignored by both Republican (Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley) and Democratic presidential administrations (Grover Cleveland). Blowing the dust off of this long neglected statute, he used it to catapult himself into the nation’s consciousness as a “Trust Buster” engaged in a bruising struggle with sinister “malefactors of great wealth.” As he told his friend Henry Cabot Lodge: “I am a great believer in practical politics, but when my duty is to enforce a law, that law is surely going to be enforced, without fear or favor.”

As much as TR relished enforcing the law, there was one glaring instance when vigorous “policing” was needed in which he sat on his hands and did nothing. This occurred during his presidency when he refused to do anything at all to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which promised all Americans—including blacks in the South—equal protection under the law and the right to vote. On its face his failure in this regard makes him seem hypocritical and racist (he had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution), but in his defense it should be noted that every president in the century that passed between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was guilty of the same dereliction of duty.

For TR, enforcing the law was never an end in itself, but rather the means to a larger end, namely, the orderly functioning of society. In his conservative value system, order came before justice as a priority for statesmen to pursue because he understood that without the former, the latter was not possible. He wanted very much to heal the racial divisions of his time, but knew this was an impossible task given the ingrained attitudes of his generation regarding race. He ignored the 14th and 15th Amendments because he felt that maintaining stability in the segregated South and cementing the region back into the nation as a whole after the destructive whirlwind of Civil War and Reconstruction was more important than beginning what in his words was a pointless “Peter the Hermit crusade” against an intractable problem that he could never solve.

TR’s acceptance of the status quo regarding the nation’s terrible racial problems was a reasonable approach when seen in the context of the century of segregation that followed the Civil War, but it undoubtedly led to one of his greatest mistakes as president—his infamous decision in 1906 to discharge “without honor” a battalion of black soldiers in the U.S. Army accused of “shooting up” the town of Brownsville, Texas. The reason for his unprecedented and unjust action (the accused did not receive a public trial) remains mysterious, but probably was heavily influenced by a horrific race riot that occurred around the same time in Atlanta, in which a white mob killed a dozen blacks to avenge the alleged rape of a white woman. In arbitrarily dismissing the black soldiers, TR appears to have once again been more concerned with not provoking white Southerners than with the pursuit of justice (after the Brownsville case was reopened in 1973, the U.S. government officially reversed TR’s decision and President Nixon signed an order restoring the pensions of the dismissed men).

In strenuously enforcing the law when it was in his power to do so and looking the other way and allowing it to be broken with impunity when he felt a policy of inaction served the greater good, Theodore Roosevelt always acted in what he believed were the best interests of the United States as a whole. Given his stellar law enforcement credentials, we can be sure that were he president today he would not waste time wringing his hands about what equipment the police used to deal with riotous miscreants. If anything, he would likely choose to use an overwhelming show of force just as Washington did to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” in order to send a loud message that violent unrest would not be tolerated on his watch.

As much as TR would favor using a firm hand, he would not offer knee-jerk approval of the police. Hardheaded realist that he was he understood that all men—even those entrusted with enforcing the law—could succumb to criminality (his record as Police Commissioner of New York City, when he demonstrated zero tolerance for misconduct within the force he led, proves this conclusively). This said, his sympathy would naturally gravitate toward the police and, as long as their conduct was lawful and professional, he would vigorously support them.

After all, TR was one of their fraternity—a Wyatt Earp in spirit who saw the world as an unruly and dangerous Old West town, a Tombstone that needed to be cleaned up and kept peaceful under the gaze of a steely-eyed lawman like himself who was willing to draw his gun if needed to maintain civilization. Fittingly, he carried a concealed revolver on his person during his presidency, making him the last Commander-in-Chief to arm himself with a firearm while in the White House.