Book Review: Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
Robert La Follette
I tend to choose books for review here rather randomly, often picking something off the new book shelf at my university’s library. So when I saw Michael Wolraich’s new book, I knew nothing about it. I was intrigued and a bit worried I would dislike it. I had two basic reservations. The first is the all too common worry the professional historian has for the popular history: that it would be a hagiography focusing strictly on outsized personalities and ignoring the larger and complex context of the time that creates change. Second, the title worried me, as it could have turned out to be a partisan book making Republicans themselves out to be the inherent creators of positive change in society.
While my first concern was only partially allayed, the second certainly was. Unreasonable Men is a very good book. Yes, it is personality driven and doesn’t really get into much detail about the tumult for reform at the grassroots in this country. But given that, Wolraich gets at the right personalities in the right ways. The cast of major characters are as follows: First, Rhode Island senator Nelson Aldrich. The prototypical Gilded Age senator, Aldrich stood as a leader of the Standpatters, the group of conservative Republicans determined to let no reform change the era of corruption and corporate rule they presided over. The classic Aldrich move was the a provision he inserted into the Payne-Aldrich Tariff removing the tariff on imported art so J.P. Morgan could bring his art collection to the U.S. without paying taxes. Now that’s senatorial service!
Second there is Joe Cannon, the dictator of the House. Cannon became Speaker in 1903 and inserted himself as the head of the Rules Committee, granting himself complete control over everything that went on the in the chamber. As conservative as Aldrich, Cannon determined to not allow the growing reform movements to make any meaningful change in the country.
Third is Theodore Roosevelt. Wolraich accurately portrays Roosevelt as a conservative with an innate sense of shifts in public opinion and who could switch positions himself without even realizing it. Distrustful of Populism and distrustful of the other reformers in Washington, Roosevelt believed himself a true moderate, bringing just the right amount of change to the political system. His outsized personality made him a very popular figure through his highly publicized actions, but he frustrated most progressives by his close relationships with corporate leaders and his highly restricted ideas of how much change should happen.
Fourth is William Howard Taft. A member of the Republican Old Guard and a man deeply committed to law and order, on some issues like trustbusting he would prove more effective than Roosevelt, but Wolraich portrays him as completely out of his depth as president. An utterly inept politician who completely misread the times he lived in, he quickly became unloved soon after taking the Oval Office, not only alienating Roosevelt but making himself a nonentity for reelection, probably even before Roosevelt decided to run on the Progressive Party ticket.
Finally, the hero of the book is Robert La Follette. Fighting Bob was an iconoclast, willing to attack anyone who stood in the way of the reform he demanded. He began leading a group of Midwestern Republicans determined to stand up to Aldrich, Cannon, and the rest of the aging Gilded Age elite. With his opponents underestimating him in his early years, he managed to move from governor to the Senate, bringing the winds of reform to Washington.
Describing all the details of how the reformers led by La Follette transformed the Republican Party and the nation could make for a very long post. In short, La Follette’s uncompromising long game approach to politics meant that by not worrying much about the next election, he slowly built allies and took positions that appealed to the growing reform demands among the American people. His attacks on corporate power first divided the Republican Party, undermining hardliners like Aldrich and helping to lead to the ousting of Cannon by George Norris through creating space for reformist Republicans and Democrats to unite on certain issues. This moved the Republicans as a whole to the left, but by 1912 created a highly fractious party where conservatives like Taft and Elihu Root desperately tried to hold off Roosevelt and La Follette. These two had bitterly split over their mutual presidential ambitions, especially since even a popular figure like La Follette could in no way hold off the Roosevelt tide after he threw his hat in the ring.
La Follette helped create the atmosphere of 1912, when even Taft was relatively reformist compared to the Republicans of fifteen years earlier. Woodrow Wilson of course won that election, with Taft just giving up after Roosevelt left the party. Wilson’s own rise summed up the era, as the New Jersey conservative Democratic establishment believed he was one of them and then the governor completely turned on them. Wilson was a Progressive in his own right, albeit one who did not really trust government much more than he did corporations. At least in Wolraich’s telling, 1912 is not possible without all the work La Follette accomplished over the previous decade. Not that the Democrats nominating a Progressive was inevitable. Wilson came quite close to losing the nomination to Missouri’s Champ Clark and only won on the 46th ballot when William Jennings Bryan threw his support to Wilson due to his disgust with Tammany Hall working for Clark.
Oddly, the only point I was ever really that unhappy with the book was in the last couple of pages. Wolraich gets Roosevelt’s death date wrong (he says it is January 5, 1920 when it is January 6, 1919). Not a big deal maybe but something that should have been fact checked somewhere along the line. Second, he claims that Aldrich “is the forefather of a progressive political dynasty” that includes Jay Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller. The claim for this rests not on policy grounds (as despite his somewhat unintended influence on major Progressive legislation such as the income tax, which he originally offered as a constitutional amendment to avoid it passing Congress and which he thought would never be ratified, and the groundwork he laid late in his life for the Federal Reserve, the man was a rock-ribbed conservative until the end), but that his daughter married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. I’m not sure that the random fact that his daughter married into the Rockefeller family gives him anything more than a family connection to later Rockefellers in public service.
Wolraich claims that “history offers a solution to our modern political dysfunction.” (x) If that’s true, which is arguable, what is the lesson here? I would argue that strident opposition to the current system combined with thinking about long-game politics, visualizing the change we want to see and working toward it through the political system but regardless of the next election, may be a useful lesson. That doesn’t mean elections don’t matter, but they don’t solve our problems and focusing only on that goal, as Theodore Roosevelt did and as a whole lot of progressives do today, can make creating long-term change much harder. Ultimately for Wolraich, that’s why La Follette is the more noble political leader, even if Roosevelt has his face blasted into a South Dakota mountain.