Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Spirit
TR’s Bull Moose spirit should inspire conservatives to construct an ambitious agenda of social reform.
Theodore Roosevelt believed in “the strenuous life,” displaying boundless vigor, fortitude, and endurance throughout his career. From cattle ranching out West to fighting the Spanish with the Rough Riders in Cuba, Roosevelt was a relentless dynamo. This exceptional man continues to hold the American imagination and his unshakable love of country still resonates with generations of conservatives. But this great American statesman also had profound empathy for the most vulnerable in society. Roosevelt’s unique blend of progressive and conservative politics was designed to protect the symbiotic relationship between the strength of the republic’s institutions and the welfare of the American people.
In the aftermath of Civil War and Reconstruction, American capitalism underwent an historic transformation. Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller led the way in turning America into a great industrial power with unparalleled wealth and innovation. But it at came at a cost. Cities grew rapidly, becoming overcrowded and poverty-stricken. Working conditions in the factories deteriorated while corporate power reached new heights. Labor began to make its voice heard through unions, strikes, and boycotts with violent results. Following the Panic of 1893, a range of reformers, populists, and progressives arose to address the increasing concentration of economic and political power.
From this political tumult emerged Roosevelt. As commissioner of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, New York City Police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, and governor of New York, Roosevelt made every effort to lead the charge for reform from the front. He even went so far as to take midnight walks on police officers’ beats to make sure they were on duty. A prolific writer, Roosevelt wrote histories of the 1812 Naval War and the development of the American West. It was this extraordinary and active life that helped secure Roosevelt’s place on the Republican ticket as William McKinley’s running mate in 1900.
This meteoric rise made Roosevelt unsuited to languishing in the vice presidential office, just as some of his rivals in the Republican establishment had hoped. But when McKinley was shot by an anarchist, Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history at the age of 42. He was determined to leave his own mark on the country, officially renaming the executive mansion "The White House" and authorizing the construction of the West Wing. Roosevelt’s first term, demonstrating success in trustbusting, mediating labor relations, and international diplomacy, paved the way for electoral triumph in 1904.
With a personal mandate, Roosevelt set about using his bully pulpit to push for the regulation of working conditions and curtailing the power of corporations under his “Square Deal.” Highlighting the work of investigative journalists, or “muckrakers” as he famously called them, Roosevelt helped the Meat Inspection Act as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act become landmark pieces of social legislation in 1906. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle documented what was happening in American meatpacking plants where rotting meat, rats, and poisoned bait found their way into the food eaten by American workers and families. This marked an early sign of Roosevelt’s growing attention to social problems and government-led solutions.
Shortly before leaving office, Roosevelt held the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children with invitations sent on Christmas Day in 1908. On January 25, 1909, over 200 attendees arrived including activists, court judges, and heads of orphanages, as well as Jane Addams and Booker T. Washington. A key concern raised was the plight of widowed mothers in poverty who felt forced to send their children to orphanages just to make ends meet. This gathering led to the creation of the United States Children’s Bureau and eventually the Child Welfare League of America, proving the new potency of the presidency’s convening power.
Roosevelt’s protégé and successor, William Howard Taft, was an honorable man but would ultimately be a source of deep disappointment. Taft dismissed Roosevelt’s Cabinet appointees without consulting his predecessor, which was taken as a personal affront. The pace of reform on railroad regulation, conservation, and overhauling tariffs agitated the growing rift between progressives and conservatives within the Republican Party. While Taft struggled, Roosevelt went on a hunting trip around Africa followed by a tour of Europe, generating massive coverage from the American and international media. Roosevelt had become a celebrity in his own right, fueling media speculation over a potential return to the White House.
Fighting for the New Nationalism
On Roosevelt’s return from Europe, a divided and exhausted Republican Party prepared to face the 1910 midterm elections. To drum up support and restore morale, he went on a speaking tour in August and September. Hoping to establish himself as the Republican figurehead, Roosevelt also prepared his vision of a "New Nationalism" that was distinctly at odds with the Taft administration and far more radical than the Square Deal. In Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt made his rallying call to confront economic and political inequality in a far more aggressive manner than his successor would ever dare.
Inspired in part by Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, Roosevelt gave his support for a range of progressive social reforms to regulate the conditions of labor. At the heart of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism was the goal to expand the American middle class. In Roosevelt’s words, “this great Republic means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”
This commitment to equality of opportunity places Roosevelt firmly in the great American tradition flowing from George Washington and through Abraham Lincoln. But he emphasized the hand up as opposed to the handout. Individual effort remained vital for Roosevelt as he believed:
The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare. Understand what I say there. Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him.
Conservatives have been tempted to view Roosevelt’s post-presidential career as a deviation from the progressive conservatism he practiced in office. But it was in fact a logical and beneficial evolution of his progressive conservatism. Reform had to be embraced to correct the imbalance of power between labor and capital, to avoid a revolutionary rupture between the two that could end the American experiment. In Burkean fashion, he wanted to manage the process of change that followed the arrival of industrialization and urbanization. This meant regulating capitalism for the benefit of all Americans through a strong national government as a path between unrestrained markets and socialist control.
Roosevelt was undoubtedly a centralizer by instinct, but he was conservative in his wish to protect property rights, social stability, and national prestige. This modernized Hamiltonian creed envisioned a strong connection between the national government and the American people that could advance the common good. Alexander Hamilton’s writings were a crucial inspiration for Roosevelt throughout his time in politics. While there were certainly some radical departures from the Founders’ vision in Roosevelt’s political thought, especially the concept of the judicial referendum, he was advancing a model of nationalism from within the American tradition.
Despite his attempts to reenergize the Republican Party, especially its progressive wing, the midterm elections resulted in the Democratic Party winning the House for the first time since 1894. Progressive Republicans put increasing pressure on Roosevelt to challenge Taft in 1912 for the nomination. Conservative Republicans, by contrast, felt more alienated by their former leader including close allies such as Elihu Root. Running for an unprecedented third term also caused unease across the Republican Party. But Roosevelt pushed ahead for the last great political battle of his career.
Strong As a Bull Moose
To prevent being outmaneuvered, Roosevelt attended the Republican National Convention in person, declaring he felt “like a bull moose.” This image was quickly adopted by cartoonists and supporters alike as an enduring symbol of the Rooseveltian spirit. It was, however, not enough to overcome Taft’s superior party management skills. Believing the convention had been rigged in Taft’s favor, Roosevelt conceded and withdrew to form the Progressive Party in August 1912. Governor Hiram Johnson joined the ticket as running mate, building up the Progressive base within the California Republican Party. This new movement, popularly called the “Bull Moose Party,” became one of the most important third-party forces in American political history.
Roosevelt proved his immense bravery on the campaign trail when an attempt was made on his life as he was about to deliver a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in October 1912. The bullet was stopped from going through his heart thanks to the thickness of the speech in his coat pocket. John F. Schrank, his would-be assassin, was arrested and Roosevelt, with his shirt bloodied, said to the audience, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” It was an iconic moment in a life bursting with color, but Roosevelt could not break the two-party system. Gaining 88 electoral votes in six states, he pushed Taft into third place but could not stop Woodrow Wilson from winning the presidency.
No third-party candidate has ever matched Roosevelt’s record, and the new Progressive Party faded away shortly afterwards as Roosevelt reconciled with his old party in his twilight years. That does not diminish the importance of the Bull Moose Party in 1912. Roosevelt was able to elevate his New Nationalism into a full platform of progressive measures, including “the protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” In an address at the Convention of the National Progressive Party in Chicago, Roosevelt restated his support for social insurance:
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It is abnormal for any industry to throw back upon the community the human wreckage due to its wear and tear, and the hazards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment, and old age should be provided for through insurance. This should be made a charge in whole or in part upon the industries the employer, the employee, and perhaps the people at large, to contribute severally in some degree.
It would ultimately be Roosevelt’s distant Democratic cousin who would fulfill much of this promise with the New Deal and the creation of Social Security. Since that time, American social insurance has expanded and undergone many changes. There are valid conservative criticisms of these programs’ shortcomings, but a strong system of social insurance is still necessary and desirable. Roosevelt’s Bull Moose spirit provided the American System its social conscience at the turn of the century and can inspire conservatives to construct a positive and ambitious agenda of social reform for modern America.
This article is part of the American System series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.