Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy.

Author:Holmes, James R.
Position:Book review

Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy. By Sidney M. Milkis. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009. 361 PP.

Time spent absorbing this book is time well spent. Milkis argues resoundingly that the 1912 presidential election, pitting Progressive ex-President Theodore Roosevelt (TR) against incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, spurred Americans to depart from long-standing traditions of self-government. Or, as the author puts it, the campaign provided the catalyst for "a searching and passionate contest for the constitutional soul of the American people" (p. ix). While Roosevelt finished second to Wilson, the Progressive Party set the terms for debate. Instituting a national government strong enough to counteract the ill effects of industrialization was the chief goal for Progressives. Candidates entered the lists in 1912 committed to "pure democracy" manifest in direct primaries, a muscular chief executive accountable to popular sentiment, and such innovations as empowering electorates to recall public officials and overrule decisions from state courts (p. xiii). Such measures, declared party spokesmen, would make the people "masters of their Constitution" (p. xiii). The Progressive bequest survived even though the party itself did not. The New Deal and the Great Society, to name two ambitious ventures, testify to its lasting impact.

A second strand to Milkis's account retells Roosevelt's part in these great events. It is somewhat less satisfying than his inquiry into Progressives' influence on American politics, perhaps, inevitably so. Despite the deluge of letters, articles, and books that poured forth from TR's pen, he revealed little about his metamorphosis from conservative reformer into Progressive champion. Why, for instance, did he rethink his approach to statecraft after he...

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