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American ideal: Theodore Roosevelt and the redefinition of American individualism

Paul M Rego, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study demonstrates that Roosevelt spent most of his life trying to reconcile two often competing values: the collectivist spirit of Progressivism and the individualism of the founding fathers. As President, TR used the power of the national government to break down obstacles that prevented everyone from competing on a level economic playing field, thereby providing them with opportunity to realize their individual potential. But he believed that much depended on the character of the individual and therefore relied on personal example, the bully pulpit, and an extraordinary number of public writings to preach the values of fair-play, decency, hard-work, self-control, and duty to family, community, and nation. In essence, Roosevelt played the role of the kindhearted tough guy---his American ideal---and he hoped that his words and deeds would inspire his fellow citizens to appreciate the importance of both individualistic and collectivistic qualities. Roosevelt accepted largeness in American life, including the new corporate scale of the economy. He rejected both the Wilsonian desire to break up corporations and the Socialistic wish to nationalize them. He preferred instead to strengthen the regulatory powers of the federal government, while remaining devoted to the principle of individual responsibility. He was simply unwilling to regard structural solutions like statutes, constitutional amendments, and regulatory bodies as an appropriate response to all of society's problems. Especially where the private behavior of individuals was concerned, Roosevelt believed rhetoric and example were often more effective than either institutional reform or law in elevating mankind to a higher plane of morality. In short, TR was not in the mainstream of Progressive reformers in that he set out to reform, not forsake, the individualist values that prevailed during the 18 th and 19th centuries; and the sum of his efforts (both institutional and personal) offers a third way, not yet chosen, to transcend the liberal-conservative dichotomy of both modern American politics and contemporary political scholarship.

Subject Area

Political science|American history

Recommended Citation

Rego, Paul M, "American ideal: Theodore Roosevelt and the redefinition of American individualism" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3216960.