America's Twentieth Century: Individualism, Freedom, and Community from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

Max J. Skidmore
Political Science
University of Missouri-Kansas City

America was born in liberty. The idea of intellectual freedom forms the core of much of what it is to be American. The Founders sought a nation of free citizens who would be driven by the ideals of civic republicanism to act for the public good.

Because of the explicitly ideological nature of totalitarian regimes in the early twentieth century, the term "ideology" sometimes carries with it unsavory connotations. Thinking of ideology often brings to mind the savagery under Stalin, the murders under Mao, or the horror under Hitler--all reflecting ideologies that America has opposed. The tendency, then, is to think of America as non-ideological.

But we are all influenced by ideology; it cannot be avoided. Properly understood, ideology is not simply an epithet signifying dogmatism; neither is it limited to authoritarian thought./1/ Ideologies are vital, but they also present dangers. The most benign can be warped so as to have effects contrary to what would be expected. An ideology of equality in the Old South contributed to the most vicious form of inequality (all men are equal, these human beings are not equal, therefore they are not human beings). An ideology of liberty led to repression in World War One, to Japanese-American concentration camps in the Second World War, and to McCarthyism later. These were times when Americans sought a stifling conformity in order to preserve liberty.

Numerous ideologies contend on the American scene. Regardless of their differences, many of them--largely because of our revolutionary heritage--contribute strong strains of individualism to the resulting mix. Not everyone, to be sure, shares equally or at all in this complex product, an American ideology of individualism, but it is pervasive and it persists. Americans, at least rhetorically, tend to honor the individualist--especially if he is a materialist, a pragmatist, and, above all, a success.

The ideology of individualism brought great strengths to the society. Hard work and self sufficiency were as useful in the emerging urban areas as they were in taming the wilderness, but an often overlooked fact is that cooperative action has been equally important. The railroads and canals that were so vital in unifying the country were the result to be sure of enormous personal effort, but they reflected even greater public commitment and the use of governmental power. It was government military power that made possible the conquering of the continent, just as it was government with its protection for contracts, a monetary system, patents, copyrights, and the like, that made possible the emergence of a capitalist economy.

Nevertheless, individualist rhetoric has grown so powerful as to create a mind set that submerges the earlier commitment to civic republicanism. This is ironic, because the complex modern world increasingly requires programs that are far beyond the ability of individual effort--individualism--to accomplish. Americans tend to be pragmatic, accepting necessary programs regardless of their inconsistency with an individualist ideology.

Some reconciliation is necessary when a society accepts practices that are inconsistent with its fundamental principles. Revising an ideology always presents a risk of great trauma. Americans generally have been able to avoid the trauma by a semantic sleight of hand, or mind. The tendency is to describe practice using terms not really descriptive of the practice, but compatible with the ideology.

This reconciliation by rhetoric has been useful in permitting the acceptance of essential practices without great ideological turmoil. It also can obscure the nature of reality, postponing a true reconciliation until the potential for trauma becomes even greater than before. It also can lead to odd anomalies. Let us note a couple at random. For example, those who fiercely defended Oliver North--a man who admitted committing perjury in testimony to Congress--went so far as to praise him and call him courageous for his action, while later they condemned President Clinton with equal vehemence when they suspected him to have lied, or to have suborned perjury about a matter that was not illegal. Such compartmentalization, to cite another example, permits some of those who believe that government spending is bad, that it cannot accomplish anything positive, and that the benefit of government spending is inversely proportional to its amount also to believe that President Reagan triumphed over the Soviet Union because of brilliantly--and, one should note, effectively--using government funds to spend the former "superpower" into oblivion.

Before the industrial revolution, the greatest danger to human freedom, intellectual or otherwise, came from government. America became a haven to those fleeing governmental repression. The Founders therefore carefully crafted a constitution to restrict the use of governmental power. They could not have foreseen the unprecedented power that corporate industrialism would create and unleash.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the new, vigorous, President Theodore Roosevelt--the youngest person ever to hold the office and the first to serve entirely in this century--did foresee it. He was no Jeffersonian and in fact feared and railed against radicals (even though he moved so far as his career progressed that one writer found it difficult to decide whether TR was a conservative radical, or a radical conservative)./2/ Nevertheless, almost alone among national leaders, he noted the threat to the individual--to individualism--that came from outside government. He recognized that only government had the potential power to control new forces that were threatening individual freedom and self-determination, so he worked to develop that power.

He did not seek to eliminate bigness in business, but to ensure that business used its power in the public interest. "Roosevelt placed a high value upon social order, upon social efficiency, and upon power. He recognized that in the new industrial order, power could be dangerous to the public's welfare, but he thought the new industrialism was more promising than it was threatening. Roosevelt held that government should be powerful in order to regulate private strength, and within powerful government there should be a powerful executive./3/

No one can question Theodore Roosevelt's commitment to individualism, and yet his endorsement of vigorous government led it to become more active, certainly in peacetime, than ever before. Among other actions, he sought to restore railroad competition in the Northwest by successfully suing to dissolve the Northern Securities Company, and he made it clear that corporate magnates could not expect to deal with the President of the United States as equals. He moved against trusts in the beef, oil, and tobacco industries. He secured the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both in 1906. In the first use of federal governmental power on behalf of labor instead of against it, he asserted presidential "jawboning" authority to bring mine owners to the bargaining table in the great coal strike of 1902; his threat to send in troops to operate the mines brought a settlement and removed a great threat to public health as winter approached.

Roosevelt's greatest successes came in the field of conservation, the one subject upon which he would not compromise. It is no exaggeration to call him the first, and the most committed, environmentalist among the presidents. During his presidency, he set aside more than 150,000,000 acres of public land and prevented its sale to private interests. An 1891 law gave him this authority. Western members of Congress fumed that his actions impeded economic development in their area. In 1907, lobbying from timber, mining, and utility companies was successful in bringing about legislation in their interest. TR's opponents within his own party attached a rider to a Department of Agriculture appropriation bill that would have destroyed his administration's timber program. The rider removed from the President the power in six states to create new forest reserves or to extend existing ones without the express approval of Congress. In a typically brilliant stroke, Roosevelt immediately impounded some 17,000,000 additional acres. Only after so doing did he sign the act that stripped him of this authority. Congress was outraged, but could do nothing. Utah and Arizona officials have condemned President Clinton when he moved to place a much smaller amount of federal land under protection--an action considerably less bold than Roosevelt's./4/

TR's "Bull Moose" Progressive platform of 1912 went considerably beyond his actions as President. Nathan Miller describes it as the most sweeping program for reform yet put forth be a major presidential candidate./5/

It is doubtful that any president has been better able to balance commitment to energetic government and individual rights, or that any, including Jefferson, has ever exceeded Roosevelt in the breadth of his interests and activities. Nevertheless, we are not comfortable with Roosevelt. "Today's insouciant critics," notes John Morton Blum, "censure as quixotic adolescence or dangerous diversion the intensity of act and feeling they no longer share." But:

as his motion was forceful, so his standards were high. In that combination Roosevelt had faith. By positive government he sought to promote national strength and to assure to each individual unfettered opportunity for realizing the dignity and the satisfactions of honest work. Whatever his shortcomings, his habit of action had enduring value. He made a virtue of dutiful vitality applied in an age of vigor and confidence. In a more troubled time the world learns painfully again the need for deciding firmly what is right and laboring assiduously to achieve it./6/

We can look at this spirit only with envy.

As he had promised during his triumphant electoral campaign of 1904, Roosevelt--the first Vice President to succeed to the presidency and then win a term in his own right--did not run again in 1908. His subsequent disillusionment with his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, led him to seek the Republican nomination again in 1912. Despite his victories in the primaries, his popularity with the people, and support from the rank and file of his own Republican Party, the GOP leaders would have none of it. They denied him the nomination that he believed--with considerable justification--that he had earned. For the first and only time, the loyal Republican bolted his party. He led his progressive forces into battle against Taft, representing the entrenched Republicans, and against the Democrats' nominee, the scholarly Woodrow Wilson. By overwhelming Taft in both the popular and the electoral vote, he split the dominant Republicans, permitting the Democrats narrowly to elect their first President since Grover Cleveland in 1892.

Wilson's victory disappointed the reformers, who had hoped for a TR triumph. They quickly learned, though, that they could work with Wilson, who followed Roosevelt as another great progressive President. In legislative terms, Wilson surpassed Roosevelt, who always faced a conservative majority within his own party. Under Wilson came additional reforms, including the Federal Reserve System; the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, permitting a progressive income tax and mandating direct election of United States Senators; and--belatedly--the Nineteenth Amendment removing sex as a bar to voting. In 1912, only TR had supported the vote for women.

War tends to overwhelm any existing reform impulses. World War One was no exception. Wilson's administration on the whole was a great progressive one, but just as the war years brought TR at the end of his life to bitterness, chauvinism, and reaction so too, under Wilson, did they bring repression and dogma. America's actions formed an ill fit with its ideology of freedom when the Espionage Act and the Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 brought nearly two thousand Americans to federal prison for the simple act of speaking out. One person was jailed for saying in public that "war is contrary to the teachings of Christ."

Despite the popular image of the 1920s as the "Jazz Age," and a time of reduced restrictions on personal conduct, politically the decade was an age of withdrawal. After decades of frenetic reform and then war, America was tired and self-absorbed. Intellectual freedom was less in evidence as a characteristic of the time than was repression of nonconformists. The decade ended with the Great Depression.

Herbert Hoover was a skilled administrator, but unfortunately was inept politically and adhered dogmatically to a political and economic philosophy that was manifestly unsuited to the conditions. His doctrinaire resistance to proposals that he believed to be incompatible with what he the "American system"--a relatively unregulated, profit-based free-enterprise economy--led to his downfall and to the destruction of his previously unparalleled reputation. An example of his rigidity was his veto of a bill to provide federal relief to unemployed workers, despite his hardearned and well-deserved reputation as a humanitarian. He commented that "never before has so dangerous a suggestion been seriously made in this country./7/

Hoover believed that the greatest enemy facing the American people was not the Depression, but socialism. He praised individualism as the basis of America's industrial system and its high standard of living. He accepted some governmental regulation, but very little and only that which he perceived to be consistent with free enterprise. In Hoover's opinion, government must never become involved in the production or distribution of goods or services within the United States; also, it must always encourage initiative and equality of opportunity. He denied that what he favored was laissez-faire, but he did fear that any significant growth in national power would bring alien practices and ultimately socialism.

"Confidence" was Hoover's solution for economic difficulties. After the Great Depression had hit, he consistently maintained that a restoration of confidence in the business community was the cure. The basic principles of the economy were sound, he believed, and although speculation had contributed to the Depression, the major causes were from outside American borders. He continued to hold that only minimal regulation of business was permissible or necessary; anything more would further weaken confidence and worsen the situation. He granted the need for regulation of utilities, banking, and finance but nevertheless argued bitterly after he had lost the presidency that the New Deal's regulatory measures would lead the United States into a European totalitarianism.

Hoover issued a stream of incredibly optimistic forecasts during the early years of the depression, but it is clear that these were for the purpose of restoring confidence and that he was well aware of the seriousness of the situation. He worked diligently with business and industrial leaders to persuade them to maintain wage levels, which they generally did voluntarily until the early 1930s. They could not maintain production and wage levels indefinitely when there was no market, however, and conditions steadily worsened. Hoover did exercise leadership, but he refused to call for coercion of the economy.

Hoover was a slave both to his overoptimism and to his devotion to American individualism. Never did he recognize how the huge productive capability of the American economy had overshadowed the purchasing power of the people. He was a tragic figure--an able man entrapped by a rigid ideology inappropriate for the complex world of crisis in which his presidency required him to function. He always insisted that his policies represented true liberalism, as opposed to either laissez-faire or the "false liberalism" of his opponents./8/ The New Deal, which he hated, preempted the term and applied it to policies that he considered a road to ruin.

Hoover was not the heartless man that some of his crftics charged him with being when he continued to insist that poverty and unemployment were essentially local--even that they were personal and individual. He was, however, dogmatic and inflexible, unable to understand the changes that had come to his world. Unfortunately, he held power just as these changes were coming with greatest speed and effect. His inability to deal with them brought not only personal bitterness but national and international tragedy.

Part of the tragedy was that Hoover failed to understand certain key aspects of modern corporate capitalism. Most persons of his time shared his failure, and many still do today. Not only had industrialism created power that could never have existed before, but the corporation had concentrated that power in private hands with virtually no public responsibility. In fact, as the economists Adolph A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means of Columbia University pointed out in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), the modern corporation had become a form of nonstatist, or nongovernmental, socialism. Such an institution had social and economic implications that were not acknowledged by governmental policies or even by basic theories. Corporations were great economic concentrations that were widely owned, but the owners had surrendered control of their wealth to a managerial elite. The new institutions were, in fact, quasi public entities, and as such, Berle and Means--agreeing with the principle Theodore Roosevelt advocated nearly three decades previously--thought that they should be subjected to public control.

By developing an institution of such power, the "captains of industry" had changed the basic form of American society. No longer were Americans largely self-employed. The corporation had become the dominant institution in American life. That institution was innovative, also, in that it resulted in a divorce of ownership and control of wealth.

No avowed radicals could possibly have achieved such a revolution in the structure of American institutions. Ironically, the industrialists brought about radical changes while insisting that things should remain as they had always been. Berle and Means called into question the traditional logic of property and of profits, and they pointed out that even "public" and "private" no longer retained their former meanings./9/

Although it would have been difficult to imagine any other figure overshadowing the vigorous Theodore, a political giant who truly symbolized an age, another figure did so-another Roosevelt. Theodore's distant cousin, Franklin, took office at the depth of the depression and engineered a change in expectations. Americans came to accept a federal government with a responsibility for positive action to ensure conditions that would enable citizens to lead the best possible lives. This did little to undermine the fundamental ideology of individualism.The individualist ideas and contrary practices existed side-by-side, often requiring deft rhetorical reconciliation of the conflicts.

Every President from FDR through Jimmy Carter--recognizing the complexity of the modern world and the inadequacy of individualism as a solution to social difficulties--accepted the new function of government. Harry Truman continued FDR's New Deal--which was an expansion of TR's Progressivism--expanding it further into his own Fair Deal, which included desegregation of the Armed Services and expansion of Social Security. Truman even went so far as to recommend (unsuccessfully) national health coverage for all Americans.

Dwight Eisenhower, although more cautiously, also continued to expand the New Deal, and his support brought about the addition of disability benefits to Social Security, a huge expansion of the program. John Kennedy's brief New Frontier was fully in keeping with the established pattern of expanding the New Deal, when his administration was cut short. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, a giant in his own right (albeit a decidedly flawed one) moved quickly toward his Great Society. In his War on Poverty, support for education, and vigorous insistence on civil rights, Johnson arguably became the equal in reform of his mentor, FDR. Similarly, Richard Nixon continued to accept the basic outlines of the New Deal, going so far as to propose (unsuccessfully) a Family Assistance Plan that would have funneled money to the poor under the mechanism of a negative income tax. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter modestly continued the tradition.

The period from the New Deal to the end of Carter's presidency had been one of the most eventful in American history. It saw the creation of Social Security and unemployment insurance, federal insurance of bank deposits, expansions of civil liberties including a Freedom of Information Act, expansions of Social Security to include disability coverage and Medicare, the destruction of legal barriers to black equality, a powerful feminist movement, restrictions on police excesses with a new professionalism among agents of law enforcement, and an attack on poverty. And all the while Americans continued to speak the language of individualism.

Then came Ronald Reagan. By the time he was inaugurated President in 1981, it had been nearly thirty years since Reagan as a spokesman for the General Electric Company had begun to deliver from one end of the country to the other what he called "The Speech."

Major themes of The Speech included the evils of "big government," the dangers of communism, the threat from centralization, and the "insufferable burden of high taxes." Reagan forcefully warned of the peril from governmental paternalism, and pointed to the "failure" of Social Security. Proposals for health care were traditionally "one of the easiest first steps to impose statism on a people," because such proposals could be "disguised" as humanitarianism. Government programs were intrusions on liberty./10/

Reagan had a genius for appealing to the people and for portraying himself as "reasonable." When he secured the Republican presidential nomination, the public appeared quickly to forget that almost immediately before he became a candidate of a major party and within a year of his becoming President, Reagan had been thought to represent the far-right fringe of American politics.

As president, Reagan failed to achieve his long-term goal of eliminating Social Security--and in fact had to shift tactics to advocating more subtle restrictions--but he brought about major changes in public policy. He managed to reduce progressivity in income taxes and to secure a drastically lower level of income taxation. Social Security taxes rose to 36% of federal tax receipts from 31%, and the share of income taxes dropped from 47% to 45%, as Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips reported./11/ From a purely professional view, one must admire the ability of anti-government rhetoricians to convince many people that the oxymoronic phrase, "flatter, fairer tax" made sense.

There were other consequences as well. Reagan's rhetoric and that of his followers had an effect. His oft-repeated mantra that "government is not the solution, government is the problem," sounded congenial to many Americans whose rhetoric had remained individualist. It accelerated the corrosion of whatever had been left of civic republicanism. His successors, George Bush and Bill Clinton, were left to function within a legacy of negativism.

Let us compare the beginning of our century with its end. John Milton Cooper's excellent description of Theodore Roosevelt is worth quoting at some length:

The excellence of Roosevelt's performance at the middle of his presidency extended beyond his political activities. His catholic interests and intellectual and aesthetic tastes led him to exploit the varied dimensions of his office to a degree that has never since been fully matched. His redecoration and renaming of the White House foreshadowed an interest in governmental promotion of the arts that had not existed since the 1820s. In 1904 and 1905 he directed the Treasury to redesign American coins, and he commissioned his friend, the leading sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to do the work. He thereby gave the country, he later boasted, "the most beautiful coinage since the decay of Hellenistic Greece." Roosevelt repeatedly badgered Congress to provide funds for scientific and cultural projects, particularly research and exploration by the Smithsonian Institution and the establishment of a national gallery of art in Washington. He also pioneered in using the presidency to set a public example of encouragement of art and learning. White House guest list included leading writers, painters, sculptors, and scientists, and the president took pains to see that the press knew about and publicized those whom he entertained.

..."Distinguished civilized men and charming civilized women came as a habit to the White House while Roosevelt was there," recalled [the novelist Owen] Wister. "For that once in our history, we had an American salon...."

Amusing though his many hobbies and projects often appeared, they reflected an aspect of his leadership that was serious, important, and virtually unique among American presidents. Lewis Einstein later commented that Roosevelt seemed to him to reincarnate the Italian Renaissance ideal of rounded and encompassing thought and action.... His tastes often appeared to be old-fashioned and straitlaced, even though he defended Edgar Allan Poe's reputation and promoted the career of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Yet Roosevelt based his cultural views upon wide cultivation and genuine reflection. He cared deeply about the public impact of art and literature, and he believed that the best works should promote civic virtue.... The historian Jacob Burckhardt described the Renaissance political ideal in the phrase "the state as a work of art." That was the ideal Roosevelt pursued during his presidency./12/

What better praise could there be for a national leader than to say that he pursued the state as a work of art? At the same time, Theodore Roosevelt bridged the centuries and made it possible for America to develop its modern greatness. The energy that he brought to the office paved the way for the twentieth-century presidency that used governmental power for the benefit of the citizens as well as for the state.

But in American politics, few things are ever static. As the century ended, things again were quite different. Do we recognize how completely things have changed? Not since Vietnam have we lived in an age of confidence. Not since the 1980s have we had a commitment to a great public purpose, to something other than the bottom line.

John Kennedy's call to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" rang loudly and hit a true note at the beginning of the 1960s. How would it have been received in the 1990s, when the mood was to downsize? The call then was for restriction of cooperative effort--that is, government. The most effective rallying cry had become a different kind of appeal: no longer to a grand public effort, no longer to light the torch of liberty, but rather to an open self interest--to a demand for lowered taxes.

The communitarians are right to call for a renewed commitment to public activities and to a recognition of civic obligations. They are wrong, however, to say that our trouble stems from too great an emphasis on individual rights. Both individual rights and a sense of obligation are essential. Interpreted properly, they are complementary, rather than antagonistic.

The century that began with such hopeful optimism and a sense of public purpose ended with a selfish disregard for the public good. The century that began with vast improvements in government, at its ending only barely had fended off efforts to dismantle that very government. Great concerns occupied the headlines in nearly every one of the century's decades. In its final one, however, the most important thing that headline writers could think of seemed to have been a President's sex life.

Although it is important of course to control government, it is equally important to have good government. Freedom, including intellectual freedom, can certainly suffer from intrusive government, but not only then. Freedom suffers equally when government becomes ineffective--as many citizens in Botswana, Rwanda, or the former Yugoslavia surely would be only too happy to verify.


  1. For an extended discussion of ideologies beyond the scope of this paper, see the introduction to Max J. Skidmore, Ideologies: Politics in Action, 2nd ed., Ft. Worth: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1993, esp. p. 7.[Back]
  2. John Morton Blum, The Republican Roosevelt, New York: Atheneum, 1973 [1954], p. 23.[Back]
  3. David Shannon, Twentieth-Century America: The Progressive Era, 2nd. ed., Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969, p. 25.[Back]
  4. For details of Roosevelt's life and presidency, see the Autobiography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913; for an unflattering view, see Henry F. Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931; for a more balanced interpretation see Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, New York: William Morrow, 1992; for excellent treatments of his boyhood and his life up to the presidency, see, respectively, David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, and Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegen, 1979.[Back]
  5. Miller, p. 528.[Back]
  6. Blum, pp. 2-3.[Back]
  7. Quoted in Frank Freidel, The New Deal in Historical Perspective, Washington: Service Center for Teachers of History of the American Historical Association, 1959, p. 3.[Back]
  8. See Richard Hofstadter, "Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Individualism," The American Political Tradition, New York: Vintage, 1958, pp. 283-314.[Back]
  9. See my Legacy to the World: A Study of America's Political Ideas, New York: Peter Lang, 1998.[Back]
  10. Ronald W. Reagan, "Encroaching Control," an address to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, March 30 (photocopy at the Reagan Collection, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University), and "Encroaching Control: Keep Government Poor and Remain Free," in Vital Speeches 37:22 (1 September 1961), p. 678.[Back]
  11. Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor, New York: Random House, 1990, p. 80.[Back]
  12. John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 86-88.[Back]

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