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New Nationalism


NEW NATIONALISM is the term used to describe Theodore Roosevelt's political philosophy that the nation is the best instrument for advancing progressive democracy. In 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt returned from safari to plunge into the 1910 congressional elections. The Republican Party was deciding, Roosevelt believed, whether to be "the party of the plain people" or "the party of privilege." On 31 August in Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt called for a "New Nationalism" to "deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage."

Roosevelt's New Nationalism sought a transcendent idealism and a renewed faith through the power of democratic nationalism and activist government. The phrase came from Herbert Croly's 1909 work, The Promise of American Life, which was itself inspired by Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt collected his 1910 campaign speeches under the title "The New Nationalism."

"The New Nationalism" became Roosevelt's campaign platform in fighting his handpicked successor William Howard Taft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. Roosevelt advocated a strong, Hamiltonian government to balance big business. He advocated more corporate regulation, the physical evaluation of railroads, a graduated income tax, a reformed banking system, labor legislation, a direct primary, and a corrupt practices act.

During an unprecedented popular primary campaign in a dozen states, Roosevelt ripped into Taft and the Republican old guard, as the defenders of "privilege and injustice." Responding, Taft became the first president to stump for his own renomination. Eventually, Roosevelt won Republican hearts but Taft won the nomination, thanks to the party "steamroller" of bosses and officeholders.

The Democratic candidate, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, positioned himself between Taft, the hostage of big business, and Roosevelt, the apostle of big government. Wilson advocated a "New Freedom." Influenced by the progressive reformer Louis D. Brandeis, Wilson viewed decentralized government and constrained corporations as the recipe for a just democracy. Roosevelt's run for the presidency under the Progressive Party banner kept the central issues—and these two outsized personalities—in the forefront of Wilson's winning 1912 campaign.

Yet, the Roosevelt-Wilson contrast was not as dramatic as it appeared, then or now. Even as Roosevelt championed the rights of labor over property, he asked Americans "whenever they go in for reform," to "exact justice from one side as much as from the other." While the difference in emphasis was significant—and pointed to two major trends in American progressivism—both the New Nationalism and the New Freedom highlighted the reform consensus. Roosevelt reflected more of the fire breathing moralism of the politician Robert La Follette; Wilson displayed more the crisp, rational, monastic efficiency of the social crusader Jane Addams. Yet both men and both doctrines reflected a growing commitment in the early twentieth century to face the challenges of bigness, of modern corporate power, of the dislocations wrought by industrial capitalism. And both ideas helped shape the great reform movements of the twentieth century, including the New Deal and the Great Society.


Blum, John Morton. The Republican Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.


See alsoNew Freedom ; Taft-Roosevelt Split .

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