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Progressivism, Presbyterianism, and the White House

Surely no President epitomized the Progressive Era like Theodore Roosevelt, from trustbusting to conservation. Oddly, we rarely remember him as his contemporaries often did: “the greatest preacher of righteousness in modern times” (Gifford Pinchot); “essentially a preacher of righteousness” (William Loeb); “a veritable preacher of social righteousness with the irresistible eloquence of faith sanctified by work” (Jane Addams); “always ready to appeal for justice and righteousness” (Henry Cabot Lodge).

Deeply religious and moralistic, Roosevelt came from the same mold as most other Progressive Presidents. From Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, who oversaw the first antitrust law, railroad regulation, forest reserves, and expansion of national parks, to Woodrow Wilson, who implemented the Federal Reserve Act and authored the League of Nations, they tried to restrain avarice and self-seeking for the common good — for justice and righteousness, really. Moreover, Harrison, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson had all been raised Presbyterian (and Cleveland and Wilson were sons of ministers). They appointed mostly Presbyterian Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture (the conservation agencies) as well as State. The administrations of Methodist William McKinley and Unitarian William Howard Taft were relatively conservative interludes.

What was the significance of Presbyterianism? Turn-of-the-century Presbyterians had a well-deserved reputation for moralism, censoriousness, and preachiness. Presbyterianism gave Progressivism moral urgency, righteous indignation, intolerance for greed and corruption, defense of the common good, love of nature, and drive to proselytize the nation for higher principles. And Roosevelt, who famously loved having such a “bully pulpit” to preach from, epitomized the Presbyterianness of Progressivism.

Check out our infographic below to see how Progressivism’s political success vividly coincided with Presbyterian domination of the national government.


Featured image: “White House (LOC)” by The Library of Congress. Public domain via Flickr.

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