In one of the first Democratic Presidential debates, Bernie Sanders invoked Teddy Roosevelt. This was news because it’s curious that the most left leaning Democratic Presidential candidate in many years mentioned in a positive way a past Republican President, who by the way was very rich. However Sanders wasn’t the only Democrat that over the years praised the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt; Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vice President Al Gore, President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did it too among many others. The question is, are Democrats right in assuming the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt and praising his policies? The answer is yes. Teddy Roosevelt was no liberal; however his legacy contributed undoubtedly for the construction and formation of Modern Liberalism.

The Presidency and political activity of Teddy Roosevelt, to be better analyzed must be placed in a context, which is the the end of the gilded age period: a period of fast economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, major railroad construction and the rise of the big business. On the other side this period was marked by political corruption in urban areas, insecurity in the workplace, rising power of monopolies, trusts that used their market position to destroy competitors, and great social instability with riots and violent strikes. To redress some of the issues and problems that had surge in the end of the XIX century, progressives emerged. Progressives at the time did not want to destroy big companies and go back to a rural economy composed mainly by small businesses; instead, they wanted to fix some of the excessive imbalances arising from the industrial capitalism of the XIX century. Above all, progressives believed that the Federal government could be a tool to enable these reforms, something that was truly new in a time that the government intervened as little as possible.

With the assassination in 1901 of President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive who was his vice-president took over the presidency and in that moment, progressivism ceased to be a set of ideas defended mainly by college educated people, muckraking journalists, intellectuals, and businessmen in urban areas to be a national discussion.

The fact that progressive ideas were defended and promoted by a charismatic and energetic President like Teddy Roosevelt was very important because it put progressivism in the spotlight of American Politics. In a time where there was a consensus that the government shouldn’t have public policies that could correct social injustice, the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt served above all to contradict this idea. He became a bully pulpit (in his own words) of a serious of values and ideas that still influence modern American presidency.

In his first address in the state of the union in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt gave some hints about his visions for America.

The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.”

The domestic program of Teddy Roosevelt can be summaryzed in the concept of Square Deal which was formed essentially by three ideas: conservation of natural resources, regulation of big corporations and consumer protection, but above all, that the government should play a role in correcting the injustices and balance the diferent interests in society reaching a middle ground that could be as fair as possible for all.

By having a Congress that opposed in general progressive policies, Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t implement many of his proposals, yet he had the merit of bringing to the table new ideas which were later, in one way or another, implemented. However, even with all the adversity, Teddy Roosevelt managed to adopt important policies.

Roosevelt’s presidency created Food and Drug administration, which is a federal agency responsible to protect public health that exists until today; it passed important laws that forced the labelling of food and drugs, inspection of livestocks and mandatory sanitary conditions; regarding conservation of natural resources, Roosevelt is responsible for institutionalizing conservationism passing the antiquities law in which the president has itself the authority to create national monuments from public lands to protect natural resources. In summary Teddy Roosevelt  established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves,  5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. With respect to big business regulation, Teddy Roosevelt was commonly known as ‘’Trust Buster’’ for his vigorous fight against Trusts that exploited consumers and people in general. He not only sponsored new and more effective regulatory laws but was responsible for a better enforcement of existing legislation. The major example was the case against Northen Securities, which controlled all three railroad of the United States and would monopolize the railroad traffic.  Teddy Roosevelt ordered the Department of Justice to pursue a case against this company, which was one of the first cases against trusts. The Government won the case and Northen Securities was later dissolved. This case was important because it created a precedent for other cases.

In terms of social issues Teddy Roosevelt had some symbolic gestures and attitudes that were important in his time: he defended the treatment of African Americans by their merits, not by their race; he supported racial desegregation in the south; and for the first time in history he invited an African American to dinner at the White House to discuss racism. In terms of religious liberty, Teddy Roosevelt was a strong oponent of the descrimination against Catholics and Jews in a time there were some reservations about that.

The  other social issue that marked the beginning of the XX century were women’s rights, and Roosevelt always had a progressive view; in his thesis in 1880 he wrote:

“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men.”… “Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage there should be the most absolute equality between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man’s name.”

Also, in his last bid for the White House he endorsed women’s right to vote when the Democratic and the Republican front runner did not do it.

After leaving the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt’s political activity did not cease as he initially wanted. When he lost the Republican Presidential nomination in 1912 he created a new party—the Progressive party and free from the constraints of the Republican party, he proposed a truly progressive program which included inheritance tax, eight hour workday, disclosure of political campaign contributions, social insurance and a National Health Service. Despite the good result, the progressive party did not won the election and Teddy Roosevelt did not return to office. Nevertheless his program left seeds and many of his ideas  were approved in the next decade and many others were implemented during his cousin’s mandate and 32th President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Teddy Roosevelt was a visionary. He realized that a new economic and social paradigm required a new set of policies. Most of all he was able to think, propose and campaign on a new agenda that is commom today but was off the table back on those days. We know Teddy Roosevelt by many roles: the cowboy, the explorer, the naturalist, the author, the soldier and Nobel Peace Prize winner, the man who gave name to teddy bears and the man that despite being shot while he was talking, neverthless finished his speech. But he also takes credit from being one many builders of one of the most influencial and energetic ideologies of today—American Modern Liberalism and because of this liberals and Democrats should claim his legacy.

Images courtesy of Flickr.