Book Review

America tries to save itself and the world

CorrespondentAugust 6, 2006 

Crusade, n. - 2. A remedial exercise undertaken with zeal and enthusiasm. -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

The title of David Traxel's new book, "Crusader Nation," articulates a persistent trend in American public life: the need to remedy the way things were being done. In an engaging popular history that breaks no new ground but details the past in lucid, engaging prose, Traxel, a professor of history at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, shows how this reformist urge manifested itself at home and abroad during the first two decades of the 20th century.

In keeping with its newfound status as industrial behemoth and global power, the United States set out in the early 1900s to tackle some of the aggravated social and economic problems that had developed in the previous century. Theodore Roosevelt, who became president after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, was the moving spirit. The call for reform had been voiced before; T.R. was the first to place the power and prestige of the presidency behind it.

Though T.R.'s handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, did not share his progressive zeal, the effort kicked back into high gear with the election of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in 1912 and again in 1916.

Meanwhile the Great War had broken out in Europe, and despite Wilson's efforts to keep the United States out of it, American neutrality grew ever more difficult to sustain. With the declaration of war against Germany in 1917, a different kind of crusade took over: a War to End Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy. Military victory in late 1918 failed to bring the millennium, and was followed by disappointment, disillusion and the rejection of Wilson's call for American leadership in a League of Nations. The impulse for reform, whether of nation or world, was, if not dead, then comatose.

Traxel ends "Crusading Nation" with the 1920 presidential election. "To elect a man such as Warren Harding after presidents of the stature of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson," he declares, "was to emphatically reject the social achievements of the previous twenty years."

Those achievements, under the leadership of T.R., Wilson, and even Taft, were impressive, and a century later they remain so. Anti-trust laws were strengthened and enforced. The misuse of injunctions to suppress strikes was curbed. Direct election of U.S. senators was ratified. So were pure food and drug laws, government regulation of railroad rates, an eight-hour workday for locomotive crews, tariff reform, a graduated income tax, the federal reserve banking system, the federal trade commission, rural farm credits, a national highway act, and conservation of forest land and water power.

In all, the role of the federal government in actively furthering the well-being of a far greater segment of the American people was notably enlarged. What T.R. called the New Nationalism and Wilson the New Freedom made for a Progressive Era indeed.

To be sure, much remained to be done. Not only was massive discrimination against black Americans left largely undisturbed, but under the Wilson administration, dependent as it was on Southern votes in Congress, segregation was extended to several government departments. Effective child labor laws were largely blocked. Once the war boom ended, big business soon began re-establishing its control of the economy, while farm prices plunged. Leadership to combat these and other social and economic inequities would have to wait for the Great Depression and another Roosevelt.

T.R. -- Roosevelt Major as H.L. Mencken called him; F.D.R. was Roosevelt Minor -- and Woodrow Wilson were essentially contrasting personalities, both publicly and privately. Although as reformers they went after roughly similar objectives, they sought them in very different ways.

Of the two, T.R.'s was undoubtedly the more interesting and likable personality. People admired Wilson; they loved Teddy. Wilson tended toward self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance. As for T.R., jealousy and detestation of Wilson as president led him into some extreme, even vicious statements. For both, the wish to do good and the wish to run the show were all but inseparable. Traxel is eminently fair to both men.

Traxel also reminds us that a wide range of activists and innovators -- including Henry Ford, John J. Pershing, Big Bill Heywood, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, W. J. Bryan, J. P. Morgan, Emily Post, pioneer moviemakers -- were very much on the scene during the era. So extensively does the author chronicle the doings of the playboy-Marxist-journalist John Reed that he becomes almost a major character. There is even a photo of his wife posing in the altogether among the Cape Cod sand dunes.

Inescapably, however, the central figures of Traxel's narrative are Roosevelt and Wilson. Of the two, T.R. tends to get higher marks nowadays, perhaps because Wilson's ideals for his countrymen have come to seem so impossibly high. Since their time, depending upon the state of the economy and the availability of gifted leadership, the national urge for ongoing reform has alternately flamed and smoldered. One likes to think that, however currently buried deep in the national psyche, something of the spirit that invigorated Wilson and T. R. remains alive and well.

(Louis D. Rubin Jr. lives in Galloway Ridge. His most recent book is "Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog: On Writers and Writing.")

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service