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Books and Culture

Yevgeniy Feyman
Don’t Believe the Hype
Andrew Napolitano skewers the reputations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
15 February 2013

Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom, by Andrew Napolitano (Thomas Nelson, 320 pp., $24.99)

Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt are arguably two of the most misunderstood presidents in American history. Democrats and Republicans alike love Roosevelt for his bombastic personality and trust-busting legacy, while Wilson is widely perceived as a visionary whose hopes for America were foiled by the Senate. In Theodore and Woodrow: How Two American Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom, Andrew Napolitano offers a radically different perspective. Fueled by narcissism and disdain for the Constitution when it impeded their goals, he argues, both Roosevelt and Wilson did America more harm than good. Writing from a conservative-libertarian perspective, Napolitano blames the two presidents for the growth of progressivism, noting that “Theodore’s distant cousin, Franklin, is, in my view, second only to Lincoln in the degree of presidentially caused harm to constitutional government, . . . but it was Theodore who paved the way.”

Napolitano damns both presidents for their advocacy of compulsory education. He sees Roosevelt’s support of universal schooling as an extension of the president’s anti-immigrant sentiment, which was considerable; the president “even went so far as to applaud the brutal murders of a group of Italian-Americans in a prison.” For Roosevelt, compulsory education meant assimilation of new immigrants—a laudable goal, but the Bull Moose took it a step further. Many immigrants had Catholic backgrounds, which often resulted in conflicts with American Protestantism. And while Roosevelt was a firm believer of religious study in public schools, noting in a speech that “no great nation can ever survive. . . that does not indoctrinate its children in the Word of God,” the “right” religion was Protestantism. Compulsory schooling was thus a way to deal with the children of new, predominantly Catholic, “hyphenated-Americans.” Wilson’s support for compulsory schooling was motivated, meanwhile, by elitism. As he told a group of businessmen before World War I: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons . . . to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Wilson saw compulsory education as a way of weeding out the “elite” (those worthy of a liberal education) from those destined to perform “difficult manual tasks.”

These troubling motivations for compulsory schooling only confirm, for Napolitano, the wrong-headedness of the enterprise itself. In his view, citizens should have a choice about whether to pay school taxes. “Allowing taxpayers to opt out of paying for public schools,” he argues, “would lead to increased competition, lower prices, and a better quality of education.”

A similarly rigid brand of libertarianism runs through the book. The Progressive era, Napolitano points out, was largely responsible for the birth of numerous federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Labor under Roosevelt; the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service under Wilson. The result was an ever-growing tangle of federal regulations. Napolitano rightly sees these reforms as precursors of today’s regulatory state, pointing, for example, to the latest glut of Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But he too quickly dismisses the benefits that these agencies can deliver, such as guaranteed minimum safety levels for food and drugs.

Both Roosevelt and Wilson retooled and sometimes ignored the Founders’ vision to fit their own purposes, Napolitano writes. The culmination of their progressive tendency toward collectivism, in his view, was their successful push for the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the popular election of senators—replacing the earlier system, in which state legislatures selected senators, maintaining the balance of power between the federal government and the states. By taking away the direct representation state legislatures had previously enjoyed in Washington, the amendment, Napolitano believes, represented one of the largest consolidations of power in American history and struck a major blow against federalism and states’ rights. Napolitano links the amendment with the progressive desire for a more active government, citing one of Wilson’s essays: “While we are followers of Jefferson, there is one principle of Jefferson’s which can no longer obtain in the practical politics of America. . . . that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible.”

Napolitano’s purism gets the better of him again when he denounces the federal income tax, established under Wilson, as “the government’s grand larceny,” arguing that “humans have a right to life and, therefore, a right to the fruits of life’s labor.” The implication is that all taxation is tantamount to theft. Nonetheless, his analysis of the broken American taxation system—which distorts decision-making by favoring debt through the mortgage-interest deduction and hurts the poor by favoring unearned income over earned income—is on the mark. Here, as at many points in the book, the argument is unlikely to persuade readers who don’t share Napolitano’s libertarian perspective. Still, in a time of progressive national leadership and a presidential call to move our country “forward,” Napolitano offers a convincing case that progressivism, first embodied by Roosevelt and Wilson, is not the answer.

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