A lot of conservatives seem to love Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps because he came across as a rugged individualist and a strong president. It didn’t hurt that he looked great in a cowboy hat.
Yet TR did much to increase the scope of federal power, and saddle us with a federal income tax. Congress had enacted an income tax in 1894 but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down the following year. With no political opportunities to reintroduce the idea, its promoters gave up. Then, in 1906, TR began giving speeches saying that America needed a federal income tax with ever steeper rates. He inspired Cordell Hull, Democratic congressman from Tennessee, to draft a proposed constitutional amendment permitting an income tax, and after it was ratified, an income tax bill. President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law in 1913.
As President, Roosevelt oversaw a dramatic expansion of executive power, and was famously quoted as saying, “I love power…I don’t think any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands.” He repeatedly bypassed Congress, issuing more executive orders than any other president except Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson.
Roosevelt believed the United States should attack other countries even when we hadn’t been attacked or threatened. In 1895, he suggested attacking Canada. He urged President McKinley to start a war with Spain and seize the Philippines, a Spanish colony. The Filipinos were eager for independence and ended up fighting a nasty guerrilla war in the jungles — a war that dragged on for years and resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans and 200,000 Filipinos. TR fumed, “We should regard with contempt and loathing the Americans crying on behalf of peace, peace, when there ought not to be peace.”
Roosevelt remarked that free markets were “a riot of individualistic materialism.” He secured passage of a law that restricted the ability of America’s largest industry (railroads) to set market-rate prices. This began the long decline of railroads, by making it harder for them to attract the capital needed for maintenance and improvement.
In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food & Drugs Act, supposedly to protect American consumers against bad food. But there wasn’t a food crisis. People were dying of influenza, measles, dysentery, typhoid fever, polio, typhus, whooping cough and other communicable diseases. American food was safer than ever, thanks to entrepreneurs who expanded railroad networks that brought food to markets faster and developed technologies for canning, refrigeration and freezing to preserve food. Brand names like Borden, Campbell, Heinz, Van Camp, Kellogg, Post, Armour and Swift gave consumers assurances about quality.
The Pure Food & Drugs Act empowered its chief enforcer, Harvey Washington Wiley, to launch loony crusades against corn syrup, blended whiskey and Coca-Cola, which he called “soda fountain dope.”
Roosevelt became known as a trust-buster by filing antitrust lawsuits to break up alleged monopolies. Yet output was increasing and prices were falling. Markets then, as now, were intensely competitive, not monopolistic. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil dramatically cut prices of its principal product, kerosene. Rockefeller couldn’t prevent the formation of new competitors including Tide-Water Pipeline, Sun Oil, Union Oil, Pure Oil, Texas Oil, Gulf Oil and Associated Oil , Royal Dutch and Shell.
In spite of his trust-busting rhetoric, Roosevelt himself started monopolies. The biggest was the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal dam-building monopoly that built some 600 dams. It also squandered vast resources by transferring them from the East and Midwest, where rain made efficient farming possible, to arid regions of the West where farmers needed subsidies to grow anything.
Theodore Roosevelt, conservationist? No. Roosevelt resisted one of the most important trends in American history, namely the privatization of government land. George Washington (a former surveyor), Thomas Jefferson (whose father was a surveyor), and other Founders believed that property was generally best cared for in private hands. But TR set aside millions of acres for National Forests.
Ranchers used their political clout to graze their cattle on this common property, and their interest was to consume as much grass as possible, leaving whatever was left to someone else’s herd. Ranchers also did as little as possible to help maintain National Forest grazing lands, since all the benefits of doing so would go to someone else. Timber companies did the same thing, cutting down as many National Forest trees as possible and doing as little as possible to help maintain the forests. Roosevelt also approved the National Forest policy of aggressively suppressing all fires, which led to the build-up of combustibles, and in recent decades when fires have started, they’ve often been huge.
As Roosevelt said in his “New Nationalism” speech in Kansas in 1910, he sought “a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country.” In short, he was no conservative. Theodore Roosevelt was a big government man, and many of our current troubles can be traced to him.