Patrick O’Neil response to TR’s New Nationalism

Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech solidifies him as intellectually aligned with many Progressive ideals.  “The world has set its face hopefully toward our democracy” sounds like something Wilson might have said when lobbying for U.S. involvement in the League of Nations. Roosevelt talks of “democratic government on a national [rather than federal] scale,” which fits with Wilson’s amalgamation of federal power, from the Federal Reserve Act to the stripping of Senate voting rights from state legislatures. Roosevelt, though from a moneyed New York family, needs to keep his progressive credibility and call out the “great special business interests,” as he considers a possible return to the Presidency in 1912.

This progressivism combines in full force with nationalism (hence the “New Nationalism”) at points during the speech: “The national government belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the national government. The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the national government.”

Jane Addams’ brand of progressivism, focused on “betterment” and spiritual “regeneration” can be seen peeking through the cracks of this passage. Additionally, the overarching focus on nationalism was co-opted by Wilson’s administration for war propaganda, to convince citizens to buy “liberty bonds,” and rename sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” during World War I.

TR cannot quite prevent his affinity for war and struggle from shining through in this speech. He advises the crowd to “hunt out of public life” any politician who breaks a promise. Not vote out, not drive out, but “hunt.” He pays lip service to the evil perpetrated during the Civil War, but wants Americans to “fix our eyes with pride only on the good that was accomplished.”

This faith in government that manifests itself most often in how it operates a war also extends to how it can care for its citizens in peacetime. Roosevelt praises “the wisdom of Washington and Washington’s colleagues” at the beginning of the speech, but the latter half of the speech places him much closer to Wilsonian progressivism’s revision of Constitution. “The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted” is not a quote that “Washington’s colleagues” would have taken kindly to. Moreover, child labor, women’s work, and education, while not objectionable causes, are brought to the federal, rather than state level, under this “broad and far-reaching nationalism.”

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