American history, biographies, book reviews, Jean Yarbrough, presidential biographies, Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt
“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
Kim Strohmeier said:
As fascinating an individual as he was, I bet you’re getting about worn out with TR by now!! Starting on the 13th book on him, right? The Bully Pulpit will be a good lead-in to Taft. Read it last fall, and I detect that Ms. Goodwin had maybe a bit more sympathy for Taft than she did for Teddy.
And a side note for your future travels. A brand new brewpub just opened up in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati, Taft’s hometown. Named Taft’s Ale House, and apparently owned by his descendants. And the beer they make is REALLY good….
Absolutely correct – I’m onto my 13th and last TR biography and as exciting as he has proven to be, I’m anxious to get onto Taft (though every TR bio references Taft heavily so maybe I’m ready to be on to Woodrow Wilson?) I’m enjoying Goodwin’s bio, but I suspect it would be even more enjoyable with a pint of Taft’s Ale House beer. I’m going to have to find a reason to get to Cincinnati…!
Reblogged this on History Book Reviews.
Enjoying Yarbrough’s thought-provoking book now as well. While this is so pervasive of much in American historiography, those sympathetic to the Progressive ideal have dominated the narrative on TR and this entire era of Presidents for so long. She does a very good job of challenging that narrative as it has long needed to be with welcome scholarship. Like I am sure you will find, especially in the cases of Harding and Coolidge, peeling back the layers reveals a more profound reality than the caricatures they are in many places. This is primarily true of Calvin Coolidge who has been “silenced” largely, I believe, because he presents a direct challenge to the central tenet of Progressivism: that the Founding was fundamentally flawed. You just don’t do that and get good reviews with “historians.” Of course, he cared little for what anyone thought of him. He did what he judged to be right according to the law and his oath and went home to his “vine and fig tree.”
You are really making progress!