Would Theodore Roosevelt Be a Progressive Democrat Today? His VP Pick’s Political Odyssey Suggests Not.

Theodore Roosevelt was, in his time, a moderate progressive. He supported the use of government in the name of reining in trusts, reining in railroads, protecting forests, and ensuring the people did not consume contaminated foods and beverages. The moderate part of his progressiveness was noted by staunch progressive Sen. Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) in his writings, “[Roosevelt] will always say a lot of good things and half do a good many things—But it all ends rather disappointingly” (Garraty, 1962). While he was restrained from going further by a conservative Republican Congress, he was still able to achieve certain popular reforms. His legacy in the White House and particularly his 1912 run on the Bull Moose ticket suggest to many historians and political observers that were he alive today, Roosevelt would be a progressive. And it stands to reason that because he wouldn’t want to be a politically irrelevant progressive, he would also be a Democrat. Sounds crystal clear, doesn’t it? Sounds like “common sense”, doesn’t it? If only he had lived to opine on FDR’s New Deal, then we would likely know for sure. While we can’t know for sure, we can get an idea based on the political path of one of his staunchest allies, Hiram Johnson. Johnson was Roosevelt’s VP pick in the 1912 election and he lived to see the entirety of FDR’s presidency.

theodore-roosevelt-and-hiram-johnson-poster

Having gained a reputation as a reformer in California politics who as governor was willing to take on the Pacific Railroad, Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1916. Although he voted for U.S. involvement in what at the time was known as “The Great War”, he came to regret it.  Johnson was concerned about the US becoming too involved in foreign affairs and thus was one of the leaders of the campaign against ratification of the League of Nations, being one of the “irreconcilables” in the Senate who would not be swayed by any version of the treaty.  He took a reformist position on many social issues of his day, voting for the prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments. In 1920, he sought the Republican nomination for president but lost to Warren G. Harding. In 1924, he was a strong supporter of immigration restriction, voting for the Immigration Act, which in addition to severely curtailing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, extended the “Asiatic Barred Zone” to Japan. He sought the Republican nomination for president that year, but was easily defeated by the conservative incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Johnson frequently found himself at odds with his party in the 1920s, opposing its limited government direction and its low tax policies. He would have fit well in this day and age, as he was completely and utterly convinced of his own beliefs and viewed the pushing of his policies as akin to a moral crusade. Johnson’s colleague and supporter, Sen. William Borah, observed of him, “When a man opposes Johnson, he hates him. He feels that the opposition is directed personally against him, not against the policy that separates them” (Olin, 97).

In 1932, Johnson, disheartened with the conservative policies of the Republican Party, crossed party lines to endorse Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported most of the early New Deal including the Tennessee Valley Authority, a program most Republicans regarded as “socialist” or “socialistic”. He reversed his prior support for prohibition by voting for the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages. However, Johnson wasn’t a rubber stamp for Roosevelt: he opposed invalidating gold clauses in contracts and opposed the Reciprocal Trade Act of 1934, thus remaining a Republican on certain basic policy planks.

In 1936, he endorsed FDR’s bid for reelection but the next year he turned sharply against the New Deal, which was exacerbated by FDR pushing for his “court packing plan”, which would have added six justices to the Supreme Court, all presumably friendly to the New Deal. Johnson developed a strong antipathy towards the federal bureaucracy, and in opposing federal minimum wage legislation, he stated that he “never again would give unlimited powers to an undisclosed board” (Horowitz, 145). He additionally asserted that to leave employment regulation to the federal bureaucracy would give the executive too much power over the economy. Johnson, it could be said, feared both the government and the private sector having too much power. In his mind, FDR had pushed the power too far in the government direction. Johnson was possibly the most extreme representative of the group of political figures in the Senate who were progressive until they started having second thoughts about the New Deal. Johnson was an even stronger opponent of Roosevelt on foreign policy.

Hiram Johnson voted as a staunch non-interventionist, opposing all measures he viewed as bringing the United States closer to war. This was consistent with his earlier opposition to the League of Nations. However, he was proving increasingly ineffective as a legislator, with age in addition to his views becoming out of step with the times. By 1945, he had become the most conservative member of the chamber and was one of only three senators to publicly oppose the ratification of the United Nations treaty. Appropriately enough, he died on the day of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. A “fortress America” position was no longer sustainable, and neither was he.

While Hiram Johnson is primarily known in history as one of the major progressive politicians in the “Progressive Era” who increased direct democracy as California’s governor and took on the Pacific Railroad, his later switch is less known but is consistent with his opposition to “bigness”. As a man suspicious of concentrated power anywhere, it is rather striking and speaks volumes for the unprecedented and expansive nature of the New Deal when he suddenly turned against it and efforts at expanding the government in 1937. As a progressive, Johnson had his limits and he reached them after Roosevelt won a second term. The “court packing plan” probably provided the smoking gun evidence for him that Roosevelt was akin to a modern Caesar and must be resisted. While change came from both within Johnson and the government on domestic policy, his foreign policy was unchanging from views he held in the Progressive Era. Considering that Johnson was not the only person who had once supported the Bull Moose Party but turned right during FDR’s presidency, I think the notion that Teddy Roosevelt would have been a progressive today deserves far less credence than it is given in the popular and historical view. I suggest that it is entirely possible, even probable, that the New Deal would have proven too much for Roosevelt as well had he lived to see it, and he would have shifted right. In addition to Johnson, it was also too much for his former 1912 supporters, Reps. Hamilton Fish III (R-N.Y.) and Clare Hoffman (R-Mich.). The former was a leading opponent of FDR’s domestic and foreign policies from the start of his presidency, and the latter an extreme opponent of all of FDR’s policies, going as far as to vote against Social Security. However, Johnson stands as the most prominent and intriguing example given his political closeness to Roosevelt and status as a leading progressive figure in California and the nation.

References

Garraty, J.A. (1962). La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled. American Heritage, 13(3).

Retrieved from https://www.americanheritage.com/content/la-follette-promise-unfulfilled

Horowitz, D.A. (1997). Beyond left & right: Insurgency and the establishment. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Olin, S.C. (1968). California’s prodigal sons: Hiram Johnson and the progressives, 1911-1917. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Weatherson, M.A. & Bochin, H.W. (1995). Hiram Johnson: Political revivalist. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

 

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