Patrick Allitt


On his book The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

Cover Interview of February 25, 2010

A close-up

Half way through the book I make the argument that Theodore Roosevelt and some of his distinguished contemporaries can be thought of as conservatives.  TR never needed to make money for himself (he inherited a fortune) and he exhibited many of the characteristics of a European aristocrat: disdain for the grubbiness of business, a love of the martial virtues, a high sense of honor, and a belief that war is inevitable and glorious.  He was a first-rate hunter, believed in the strenuous life, and jumped at the chance to fight in the Spanish-American War.  No president has matched him as a vivid and evocative writer: he was an excellent naturalist and a first-rate historian.  His histories of the early Republic show the imposition of his conservative judgments on the first decades of American history.  He gave high praise to Alexander Hamilton but showed nothing but contempt for Thomas Paine (“that filthy little atheist”).  Strong for Washington, he was skeptical about Jefferson.

Among TRs friends and contemporaries was Elihu Root, the New York Senator who was dismayed by passage of the 17th Amendment, which transferred the election of senators from the state governments to the entire electorate.  Like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Root was too proud to grovel to the electors, and resigned his seat rather than run for re-election.  The New Republic bade him good riddance, adding that “no man can lead a people who has his back to the future.”  Ironically, that’s just what a conservative should do; look backwards to the rich and complex lessons of the past while moving cautiously into the future.

Another contemporary was Alfred Thayer Mahan, author of The Influence of Sea Power on History.  Mahan also thought that war was inevitable and that the United States needed to be sure that when war came America would fight at an advantage, with the strongest possible force and the most up-to-date weapons.  At a Hague peace conference in 1907 he urged his fellow American delegates not to accept the principle of international arbitration, and not to favor the outlawing of poison gas shells.  Such commitments would actually put America at an awful disadvantage, he told them.  When it came to the point, unscrupulous regimes would use the shells and would reject arbitration, forcing an America that had hamstrung itself through credulity to fight at a disadvantage.