“Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition” is Jean Yarbrough’s 2012 review and analysis of Roosevent and his political philosophy. Her book is the result of more than a decade of research and work. Yarbrough is a Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin and is also the author of “American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.”
Obvious from its earliest pages is that Yarbrough’s work is not a traditional biography. Instead, it has been described as a semi-biography, as a political science text and as a normative analysis of TR’s political philosophy. And, indeed, at various points in the book it does fill each of these roles.
The central hypothesis of Yarbrough’s study is that Roosevelt’s political philosophy was neither constant nor consistent. While it shifted over time between extremes (from intense, competitive individualism in the early stages of his career to progressivism as he matured) his philosophy was nearly always at odds with the tenets of the Founding Fathers, who he so ardently revered and pretended (or attempted) to emulate.
While never serving strictly as a biography, the book is organized chronologically and covers nearly every major event in his life (though occasionally with scant detail). But rather than focusing on the events in TR’s life and following the progression of his career, this book focuses on the evolution of his political philosophy as he passed through the different stages of his life.
Readers unfamiliar with Roosevelt will find him difficult to fully assemble or understand from these pages, but those with some background of his life will find Yarbrough’s work fascinating and insightful. Her introduction contains an interesting discussion concerning Roosevelt’s major biographers and their attitudes (and, often, biases) regarding TR.
Also early in the book Yarbrough provides a perceptive review of the political themes Roosevelt embedded in his earliest publications: his biographies of Thomas Hart Benton and Gouverneur Morris and his multivolume “The Winning of the West.” But Yarbrough probably saves the best for last – her epilogue contains a fascinating discussion connecting Roosevelt’s early-twentieth-century views to those of the modern political climate.
Yarbrough’s book executes its mission nearly perfectly and is universally loved by its target audience (which probably includes more political scientists than casual fans of presidential biographies). The book exudes a slightly academic flavor and is not particularly well-suited for casual poolside reading. But when read slowly and deliberately, it can appeal to anyone who finds Theodore Roosevelt’s life – and his political views, in particular – of interest.
Overall, Jean Yarbrough’s “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition” is superb in its intended role: analyzing the evolution of Roosevelt’s political views. Although there is little of his life which does not receive some coverage, it is not ideal as a biography. Readers seeking an introduction to Roosevelt will be better served by a more traditional review of his life, but someone already familiar with TR will discover that Yarbrough provides an analysis of the man which cannot be easily found elsewhere.
Overall rating: 4 stars