By Gregg Schuler
Who are your heroes and what do they stand for?
Recently a family member recommended I read two books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and watch a Ken Burns series exploring the lives of FDR and Theodore Roosevelt, called The Roosevelts. Although the undertaking would be quite time-consuming, this was not an outrageous suggestion. After all, I love American history and the Roosevelts are important figures in it.
I declined. Actually, I was forced to decline repeatedly as this relative would not take “no” for an answer. My responses led her to astonishment and finally to anger. Before long, I was scolded for being narrow-minded. How could I be opposed to immersing myself in hours of engrossing narrative on such fascinating, pivotal, and larger-than-life Americans?
The answer isn’t what the casual observer might expect. It is grounded in the history of our nation, personal and family history, and how we as Americans ultimately choose our heroes.
Life is a struggle, a constant warring of worldviews, a very long play on a large stage in which the roles are assigned, chosen, confused, rejected even, and yet still played out. Such conflict has played out in my family, and no doubt, millions of other American families as well.
Our story in America began with the adventures of a young Welshman named Amos Whitfield. An impressed (meaning forced to serve) British seaman on a British frigate, he jumped ship off the coast of New Jersey in 1742, rowed to shore, and escaped the officers who came after him by moving inland to Virginia and changing his name. There he married and raised a family of 13 children. When the Revolution came, he gave four of his sons to fight the British. (I surmise he did not much like the King’s navy and this was his way of thanking King George for the poor accommodations along the way.) Amos’ son, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel, and several of his brothers, served together with George Washington that famous winter in Valley Forge. For his service, he earned a land grant in Knox County, Ohio. When he moved there in 1806, Nathaniel had more Native Americans as neighbors than European descendants. Old history books record that he and his brothers had to kill bears and mountain lions merely to survive. The settlers named their town Mount Vernon, in honor of the general to whom they owed their land, their liberties, and their new nation.
There in Central Ohio, Nathaniel’s family grew and his progeny grew through succeeding generations, first as farmers but soon as attorneys, judges, doctors, and politicians. These are the fathers of whom Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg: the Americans, a new nation of people, who carved a country from virgin wilderness, the first and only nation set apart merely by a creed that united them in its promotion and defense. They named their creed The Declaration of Independence and then broadcast it to the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This experience of fighting the American Revolution and creating a new government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” defined them and set them a purpose. In this revolutionary ground grew one root of my family. If you do a little research, you will likely find that you too have pioneer ancestors in your family.
The other root came from southern Germany in the 1870s. Three brothers emigrated from farms near the city of Ulm. They were probably seeking relief from the many wars that had crisscrossed that region for centuries. I suspect these three young farmers moved to Holmes County, Ohio (the county adjacent to Knox) because they wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the next French or Austro-Hungarian army to cross the German plain. Who can blame them for seizing an opportunity for peace and prosperity in a new country far from European empires and their frequent wars? Whatever their motives were, they saved their sons and grandsons from being on the losing side of two world wars. These sons and grandsons also became attorneys and judges. You probably have some ancestors just like them, too.
Immigrants like my German ancestors (and many other 19th and 20th century immigrants) were not marked so deeply by the forging of the American experience of self-government nor so concerned about the absolute authority of kings as Amos Whitfield and George Washington had been. They came to America long after the Revolutionary War and after the Civil War, the inevitable and tragic conclusion of the Revolution. Such nineteenth century Germans were accustomed to regarding their monarchs as national champions and were much more amenable to vesting absolute authority in their leaders as a necessity for national success. In Prussia and Germany, leading thinkers did not want to restrain the ancient regime as the English had been doing since the Magna Carta (1215) or overthrow it as their English descendants in America had. Rather, they wanted to enlighten it with scientific efficiency to serve their national interests better, much as their generals had learned to apply mathematics and geometry to the strategy of battle and artillery positions. They believed this was simply necessary, and therefore right and proper, for the continuing development of their people, their culture, and their state.
Although grateful for their new American rights and liberties, these northern Europeans shared a common political past that predisposed them to similar ideas about the role of government and the role of leaders. Since the U.S. had long ago thrown off its colonial past, it seemed natural to them to dispose of the increasingly “quaint” classical ideology of the Declaration and Constitution and proceed into the future with a politics based more on continental rationality and modern scientific thought.
By the late 19th century, 100 years after the Revolution, some Americans had become frustrated by the difficulties of governing a young republic based on strictly constitutional principles. New concepts that had begun to form around European ideas developed by Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others were exciting to them. They read eagerly of developments in European political thought and some became proponents of the European emphasis on vigorous leadership, bureaucratic welfare institutions, and administrative science. Woodrow Wilson was among them. The forerunner of what we now call “progressive policy wonks” Wilson proclaimed that his heroes were not the American Founders but the great professors of social/political thought in German and French universities. Evolutionary “progress” (not to be confused with the ordinary meaning of the word progress) had begun to emerge as the explanation for natural order and so, by extrapolation, the appropriate objective of government, too. He came to regard the American Constitution as rather a nuisance – an old-fashioned nuisance – that should be pushed aside to make way for something newer and, therefore, presumably better. “Progress” was thus promoted to compete with, and has arguably displaced, the earlier supreme American goal of protecting liberty through a government of limited powers divided among three branches of government with checks and balances.
Since progress, so defined, was inevitable (due to evolution), it was therefore also necessary and what is necessary must, of course, be permitted and encouraged. This line of thought had very important consequences for American politics and political thought.
The main consequence was the initiation of an ongoing movement to unleash the power of government. This meant attacking the very concept of natural rights on which the Declaration of Independence is based, rights that could only limit the ability of government to “solve” problems and achieve “progress.” Teddy Roosevelt summed it up when he said, “I do not for one moment believe that the Americanism of today should be a mere submission to the American ideals of the period of the Declaration of Independence . . . I have actively fought in favor of grafting on our social life, no less than our industrial life, many of the German ideals.” Of course, it was also necessary to expand the role of government in our lives, undermine the checks and balances among the three branches of government, and in effect create a fourth branch of government (a bureaucracy) to make, interpret and enforce rules without undue influence by elected officials and, of course, the people. This required a flexible Constitution. As Woodrow Wilson said, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission . . . to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”
FDR’s influence was pivotal in implementing this vision even though he had secured no permission to do so. He filled his administration with people sympathetic to this intellectual fashion. Using the Great Depression and then World War II for political cover, they overturned or undermined the original intent of the Founders wherever possible. Once necessity is established as the dominant principle, it can be used to justify almost anything. It has had the effect of gradually anesthetizing lawmakers to the pain of overriding the Constitution. (President Obama’s former advisor, Rahm Emmanuel, said you shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste. Crises provide convenient political cover for the expansion of federal power in any direction, whether it is Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank bill.)
Roosevelt’s vision of a large and powerful central government continues to overwhelm efforts to restore the Founders’ design for limited and balanced government based on personal liberty and responsibility. In place of a Federal government constrained by a short, enumerated list of delegated powers, these “progressives” have created a new leviathan, the Modern Administrative State (MAS – more, more, more), and invested it with all powers – legislative, judicial, and executive – usurping the powers delegated to the federal government and divided among its three original branches and other powers reserved under the Tenth Amendment to the states or to the people (powers which, according to natural law and the Constitution, are inherently vested by God and nature in the people).
The evolution of this “progressive” movement is on full display in the Obama administration: elitist in disposition, presumptive of privilege, intellectually arrogant, entitled to power, ethically compartmentalized, condescending, increasingly and inevitably deceptive and coercive. They view ordinary Americans as too incompetent for self-government and believe it is the right and duty of the elite to lead the benighted American masses toward a future with more drab equality and less energizing liberty because administrative necessity demands it. (But not more equality for those in power because they are the exclusively educated elites: they presume they are deserving of more administrative clout because they are the most trained to identify and exploit the causes of social and political problems. They are experts who know what they are doing. What more convenient claim to power is there?) Yet, this is precisely what the Founders most feared, fought, and warned future generations of Americans against: the concentration of power.
Today, many Americans vaguely take for granted that the implementation of this “progressive” agenda has all been necessary and for the best, while at the same time vaguely believing that the Constitution remains our guiding force and protection. But this is not so. In reality, the Constitution has been repeatedly violated by American men and women who took solemn oaths to uphold it. Americans who value the rights and liberties protected by the Constitution, therefore, cannot look to “progressive” leaders for help in restoring the founding documents to their proper role in our national life. We must look for altogether differently educated people for such leadership, people who are both deeply educated in the particulars and respectful of the primacy of the founding documents in American life.
Modern American life has become a constant and increasingly vicious political struggle between the opposing worldviews of the Founders and “progressives.” These two fundamental ideological forces mold our politics, yet many Americans are barely, if at all, aware of them. The “progressives” like it that way, of course, because it makes it easier for them to advance their agenda.
Those of us who share the worldview of the Founders retain the right to insist that government honor our natural rights and not subordinate them to the pursuit of “progress.” Our natural rights cannot be taken from us. They are ours by nature, given to us by God, not the federal government. We can be tricked into giving away our rights, and that is precisely what has happened. But we cannot escape the moral responsibility for our choices, and we can always reclaim and embrace what God has given us in the first place.
That is why I am not willing to spend hours reading about or watching “The Roosevelts” idolized as modern “heroes.” In my view, they made the fundamentally wrong choices as Americans, and no amount of adulation by film makers can change that.
Teddy, FDR and his wife, Eleanor, and Wilson (for whom my father was named) erred in first straying from and eventually rejecting the principles of the American Founders. They chafed at the constraints the Constitution imposed on their vision and reach for power. They set themselves in opposition to its twin principles of personal liberty and limited government (presumably with good intentions). They put their shoulders to a wheel that had been turning only slowly in America and helped to set it spinning like a top. They pointed the way for the administrations of JFK, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, which have collectively converted that spinning top into a tornado of regulation and usurpation that has wrought havoc and brought overwhelming, unbridled government power right into the private lives, communications, finances, even the doctors’ offices, of all ordinary Americans. Furthermore, it has never worked nearly as well as advertised. The Obama administration is a veritable case study in government incompetence and dereliction of sworn duty.
Our ancestors fought the American Revolution to put an end to the contemptuous and invasive boarding of the king’s soldiers in the privacy of their own homes. Is the difference between their predicament and ours so great? At the very least, the rate of closure should be alarming.
When viewed from this perspective, FDR and Teddy, to a lesser extent, were failures. That may seem astonishing to some. We learned in school that FDR led us out of the Great Depression and won World War II. He was a giant of history! That may be true, but in the most important ways for Americans, FDR and Teddy, too, were failures nonetheless.
The heroes we elevate, like the gods we worship, end up defining us. What we need now is not worshipful fascination of, say, FDR’s enormous capacity for compartmentalization, or how his fireside radio chats encouraged our worried grandparents seventy years ago. We need to understand the ways in which the course he charted for our government became dangerous for subsequent generations of Americans. We need to rediscover the ideas that inspired Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – ideas that FDR thought were outdated and that President Obama treats with condescension and reproach. And we need to appreciate how Lincoln captured those founding ideas with tragic, spare gravity in a few words at Gettysburg.
What FDR, President Obama and other “progressives” have in common is this: intentionally or not, they have laid their axes to the taproot of the American experiment. That taproot is the vision of liberty and justice set forth in our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, the foundation for our form of government and national life. In attacking that root, which is inseparable from our identity and the source of our national energies, they have inflicted grievous damage on our nation. Today we struggle to heal that damage, and it is hard, even dangerous, work.
Let us be grateful to FDR for guiding the United States through a dangerous world war, but let us harken to our Founders for guidance and inspiration as we face the challenges ahead. They set an example of the commitment required for success when they said in the Declaration of Independence, “…with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Let us ever honor their legacy of powerful ideas waiting to be rediscovered and applied again.
Gregg Schuler is an investment manager and the founder of MRM Capital in Cincinnati.