Review: Pursuing the Rooseveltian Century

Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands

Pursuing the Rooseveltian Century, 31 November – 1 December 2017

The two-day conference ‘Pursuing the Rooseveltian Century’ was the inaugural conference of the recently rebranded Roosevelt Institute for American Studies (RIAS) located in Middelburg, the Netherlands. The conference called on scholars of American studies to reinterpret important moments in modern American history through the three Roosevelts, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, around four key themes; security, equality, freedom and legacies. Because the Rooseveltian Century is a relatively new concept within American studies, Giles Scott-Smith (Academic Director of the RIAS) encouraged attendees and speakers to thoroughly test this idea. Think big, think critically and think ahead was his three-part motivation during his introductory speech, something many of the speakers and panelists certainly did. The four keynote dialogues and five panels showed not only how broad the framework of the Rooseveltian Century is, but also how versatile this theme can be.

The papers presented in the panel sessions made use of the Rooseveltian framework as a means to explore a wide variety of relevant topics in American and international history. Each of the five panels themselves were structured around an overriding theme. For example, there was the panel ‘World Orders’ in which Andrew Johnstone (University of Leicester) opened with a discussion on the three Roosevelts and their ideas about and roles in the issue of international organisation. The other two participants of the panel, Marco Mariano (Universitá del Piedmonte Orientale) and José Antonio Sánchez Román (Complutense University of Madrid), focused on specific dimensions of FDR’s foreign policy.

A panel entitled ‘Legal Orders’ was distinguished by focusing on the relevant significance of Roosevelts that combined the more formally political with the personal. This combination of the two was to be found in Dom Barker’s (Oxford University) paper on the idea of Ronald Reagan as a “New Dealer”, and the influence both the New Deal and FDR had on his politics. Another intriguing example of this blending of personal and public politics came to us through Trent McNamara’s (Texas A&M University) paper on reproductive rights and race suicide.

This concern with the personal imprint of the Roosevelts emerged even more prominently in the panel aptly entitled ‘Personal Diplomacy’. Two notable papers in this session by Carla Konta (Universitá di Trieste) and Halina Parafianowicz (University of Bialystok) highlighted Eleanor Roosevelt’s own diplomatic efforts, respectively, toward Yugoslavia and Poland. Another panel session entitled ‘Influences and Challenges’ discussed such topics as the influence of Sumner Welles on FDR by J. Simon Rofe (SOAS, University of London), the relationship of the three Roosevelts with leftist radicals and radical thought by Vernon L. Pederson (American University in Sharjah), and the Four Freedoms of FDR and how they were received in central America by Jorrit van den Berk (Radboud University Nijmegen).

During his introductory speech Giles Scott-Smith encouraged the speakers to find the limits of the Rooseveltian Century, fittingly the panel with that same name did just that. The discussions included the spatial limits of the idea, which came to light during Maarten Zwiers’ (University of Groningen) paper on the connection between the Dominican Republic and Jim Crow South. Daniel Scroop (University of Glasgow) discussed the fascinating topic of family and politics and the idea of political dynasties, of which the Roosevelts are a perfect example. Scroop raised the question of Eleanor’s political legitimacy; a point further explored in Margaret Power’s (Illinois Institute of Technology) talk about Eleanor’s role in the establishment of the town of Norvelt. These papers demonstrated the boundaries of the Rooseveltian Century framework at the familial, local, and even international level. These limits were further shown to extend to the additional spheres of gender, politics and modernisation.

The keynote dialogue sessions then discussed the four main themes of the conference, providing panelists and attendees with insights that resurfaced during the panel discussions. The first keynote of the conference was jointly presented by by Mary Dudziak (Emory University) and Frank Costigiola (University of Connecticut) on the theme of ‘Security’. Here, Mary Dudziak discussed the manner in which the FDR administration deployed and expanded the war powers of the presidency and the problematic long-term ramifications of this development. Frank Costigliola’s talk on Rooseveltian security, too, focused on the presidency of FDR. The focus here was on the final years of the administration and his reliance on subordinates, who by this point were not really in alignment with him on foreign policy.

The second keynote dialogue centered on ‘Equality’. The first talk was given by Petra Goedde (Temple University). Goedde’s discussion was an engaged and stimulating overview of how the fluid and difficult idea of equality has been conceptualised over time. This was then followed by an assessment of how each of the three Roosevelts succeeded or failed to contribute to equality in such crucial spheres of politics, race, and gender. This was followed by Kiran Patel (Maastricht University) who discussed the issue of equality by focusing on FDR and the New Deal. As befits his scholarly interest, Patel primarily emphasised the achievements of the New Deal in establishing a greater governmental role in the economic sphere and the additional global influence of these precedents.

These two keynote dialogues of the first day were notable for their preoccupation with Franklin Roosevelt (with the exception of Petra Goedde) over Theodore and Eleanor. Observable as well was an implicit skepticism of the applicability and utility of the conceptual framework of a Rooseveltian Century. Indeed, on this note, Kiran Patel was explicit about his skepticism of the frame, finding little continuity between the three Roosevelts that would not be distorting. It was hence left to the second day of the conference for an enthusiastic case to be made for the conception of a Rooseveltian century on the part of Justin Hart (Texas Tech). Hart made this assertion during his talk in Keynote dialogue on ‘Freedom’. It was his argument that a Rooseveltian century was most convincingly found in what he referred to as the ‘twin pillars’ of a greater activist domestic state and the greater projection of United States interests and influence on the world stage. The emphasis on this central development of a more activist domestic state was also present in Lisa McGirr’s (Harvard University) keynote discussion on the importance of Prohibition as a precedent for such developments in FDR´s presidency.

Another defense of a Rooseveltian Century was present in Michael Cullinane’s (Northumbria University) talk, during the keynote dialogue session on Legacies. Cullinane did so by looking at the last hundred years through the lens of Theodore Roosevelt. In doing so, Cullinane stressed the five themes of Americanism, the cowboy, Progressivism, conservation, and publicity. The other Legacies keynote was given by Elizabeth Borgwardt (Washington University in St. Louis) in which she highlighted the Rooseveltian legacy in the realm of global governance.

The final roundtable of the conference attempted to tie the broad range of papers together by addressing issues with the methodology of the idea of the Rooseveltian Century and the limits and periodisation of the framework. Well acknowledged here was the valuable, if also ambiguous, insights to be gained through assessing a Rooseveltian Century through the four key themes of security, equality, freedom and legacies. The questions raised here by, among others, Mario del Pero (SciencesPo) and Michael Hopkins (University of Liverpool), brought us full circle to Giles Scott-Smith’s opening remarks on ‘thinking big’, something many of the speakers and attendees had taken to heart. This being the first conference on this topic it will be interesting to see where the Roosevelt Institute of American Studies will take this idea next.

By Paul Brennan and Celia Nijdam

Paul Brennan received his BA from Queens University Belfast in modern history in 2014 and a Research MA in history in Political Culture and National Identities from Leiden University in September of 2017. Paul Brennan works on late nineteenth and twentieth century transatlantic reformism and intellectual history. He is currently a PhD. candidate at the Roosevelt Institute of American Studies. His dissertation is entitled: ´Progressive Continuity within a Rooseveltian Century: Progressive Reformers and the New Deal.´

Celia Nijdam received her BA in Media and Culture in 2013 and her MA in American Studies in 2014, both from the University of Amsterdam. In 2016 she received a Diploma in American Studies from Smith College in the United States, where she focused in particular on American (minority) literature. She is now a PhD candidate at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, her project explores the exchange between leftist politics, literature, and racial issues during the Great Depression and the New Deal.

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