Comparisons between presidents of different eras are often misleading 

A contrast made between presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson might ring true if the conditions these presidents faced were in any way similar.
  • A contrast made between presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson might ring true if the conditions these presidents faced were in any way similar.

Author Robert W. Merry urges us in the American Spectator to embrace Andrew Jackson as the GOP-tea party model.

Merry also encourages rejection of the doctrines of Theodore Roosevelt, the very embodiment of the progressive, big-government, warmongering figure whom, he argues, Republicans should disown, disavow, disparage and never let into their party again.

Roosevelt increased the government presence in commerce and government, while Jackson reduced it. Jackson warned against “unnecessary wars unrelated to vital American interests,” while Roosevelt was an “imperialist” who longed for global “police presence.”

The contrast might ring true if the conditions these presidents faced were in any way similar. But what Merry fails to consider in his rejection of Theodore Roosevelt is that the countries the two men were called on to govern were so different as to have been worlds apart.

Jackson took office in 1829, in a country one-fourth the size of Roosevelt’s, with a population of 13 million, Anglo-Saxon, lightly settled, pre-industrial, almost entirely rural and largely cut off from the rest of the world, for which wars in Europe had little meaning and to whom no country could pose a real threat.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, ruled a rising great power that stretched from ocean to ocean, had bought Alaska from Russia, acquired the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and was shortly to be drawn into a great global conflict by forces beyond its control.

Its population was heading toward 80 million, swelled by vast tides of immigrants, concentrated mainly in large urban centers, working in factories and packed into slums.

In Jackson’s day, there were few large fortunes; Roosevelt’s had concentrations of wealth and income

In Jackson’s day, limited government fit the scale of its problems. In Roosevelt’s,  government that was rather too limited led to the disastrous Triangle Fire.

In Jackson’s day, people produced their own food. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” made him physically sick.

In Jackson’s day, a threat to the national interest was foreign invasion. In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand became a threat to the national interest (as did the occupation of the Rhineland by Hitler in 1936.)

Today, a threat to the national interest is the possession of weapons by a terrorist cell in a faraway country, making preemption at times a necessity, and the idea of a “just war” more complex.

Jackson and Roosevelt were not men following doctrines; they were pragmatists, responding to conditions they found. Most presidents are. They respond to the crises they face, using the knowledge at hand in the moment, unaware of how future generations will build on their actions, or what their innovations will breed over time.

Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived during a time when markets had failed and government appeared the only solution; Ronald Reagan served in an age in which markets worked better than governments, which had become overgrown and dysfunctional from efforts to do much too much.

As a youth, Reagan backed what FDR did in his moment (or he would not have supported Roosevelt in four straight elections). FDR, had he survived Jimmy Carter and seen welfare beget generational squalor, might possibly have become Reaganesque.

Taking power in 1829 and 1901 respectively, Teddy Roosevelt and Old Hickory might have been more like each other. Or they might not have differed at all.


Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations; The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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