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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 226


This is the grave of Theodore Roosevelt.

OK, where to begin here. I could easily write several thousand words on Roosevelt without even having to think hard about it. So I am going just make 10 points about one of the most well-known people in American history. Otherwise, this post will go on forever.

1) We can’t really understand Roosevelt properly without placing him in the context of old money New York in a new money age. Born in Manhattan in 1858 to a wealthy family, he grew up in a period when that old money was rapidly being supplanted by new money. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his ilk began to dominate society. While the old money elite had no problem with expanding business opportunities, the excesses of this new elite–whether the extreme capitalism of the Gilded Age or the nouveau riche lack of taste–really bothered this old money. The rise of the Progressives after 1885 was about political reform, yes, and mostly it was a movement that provided a lot of value to American life. But it was also about the right people taking control over American society, whether that was making sure Italian immigrants weren’t eating songbirds or corporations jeopardizing the nation’s heating supplies because they hated strikers. Someone responsible had to be in charge. Roosevelt felt he was that man.

2) Theodore Roosevelt was a deeply disturbed individual who truly loved killing both man and beast. This is often played down in a few ways. His obsession with fighting comes from building his weak, asthmatic body up. His love of killing big game is traced to his father helping him with his body by taking him on an African safari as a child and is also framed in his contributions to scientific knowledge. There is truth to all of that. That said, Roosevelt was a bloodthirsty psychopath. I mean, he, to the very core of his soul, loved killing people or having people killed in wars. He celebrated it as rejuvenating American manhood, including his own. He wasn’t walking down the street whacking people. But to create and celebrate war as a way to energize American men, volunteer for war for the chance of killing, and, in the absence of it, massacring an endless number of beasts just for the sake of the kill–this was a disturbed man. In the Ken Burns thing on the Roosevelts, which I didn’t think was very good, I believe it was George Will (huge eyeroll on principle) who said that TR was probably manic depressive. This is quite possibly true.

3) Roosevelt’s many histories of the United States reflected these internal issues he faced. The historian Richard Slotkin, in his huge tomes on American violence, pointed out that while Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis became the academically version of westward expansion for many years–and was tremendously important to how New Dealers saw the nation’s history and contemporary society–at the time he was writing, Roosevelt’s thesis of raw conquest through violence was the more popular. Turner’s thesis erases the violence involved in conquest; Roosevelt’s celebrates it.

4) Theodore Roosevelt was the first 20th century American. This is a bit of hyperbole but I use it with my students to get them to understand that Roosevelt figured out very early on how to use the new media to toot his own horn. From the moment he was New York police commissioner, he was extremely savvy with the media, getting good coverage constantly. The same was true when he put together the Rough Riders and fought in Cuba. He used that to some very real benefit–for instance, when the soldiers under his command were dying because they were wearing wool uniforms in tropical swamps, he used his media friends to lobby for lighter uniforms and more care for the soldiers. But our vision of Roosevelt as hero, as Trustbuster, as manly man, is very framed by the way he portrayed himself at the time. That’s nowhere more true than the Autobiography. That’s a fun read and historically important, but it’s also all spin. I think nowhere is that more obvious than in how much Roosevelt hates on William Howard Taft, which has permanently damaged the latter’s reputation. Now, Taft was not a great president. But he’s also an underrated president, largely because not only did Roosevelt out-charisma him by a factor of a million, but also because the most important contemporary text shaping our opinion of him–Roosevelt’s Autobiography–was written when TR had come to hate Taft. Were that book written in 1909, our opinion of Taft would likely be significantly different. Moreover, Roosevelt’s whole Trustbuster reputation, which is based almost entirely on the 1902 Northern Securities Case, is nothing but self-promotion. Taft busted more trusts, but Roosevelt gets the credit as the best at this because he gave himself the credit and because we like his personality, we believe him.

5) Theodore Roosevelt was a unapologetic racist. His racism was of a slightly different cast than Wilson’s, but the latter gets pilloried today for his racism (rightly) and the former largely gets a pass, because he gets a pass on everything. Again, this is his own self-promotion machine at work. His racial reputation is based on meeting Booker T. Washington in the White House. OK, he deserves some credit for that. But he later deeply regretted meeting Washington. His behavior in the Brownsville Affair says much more about his racial actions than one meeting with Washington. In 1906, at an Army base in Brownsville, Texas, there was enormous tensions between black soldiers and white residents. Violence erupted. Someone killed a couple of white people. It’s unknown if those murders were even connected to the black soldiers. Their own commanders noted they had been in their barracks that night. It didn’t matter. Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 soldiers, denying them the right to a civil service job, which was one of the best sorts of work African-Americans could get in 1906 and which was common after a stint in the military. This sort of injustice should define Roosevelt much more than his single, regretted, meeting with Washington. Moreover, Roosevelt was a huge believer in eugenics and race science. His imperialism was deeply imbued with white supremacy. One of his closest colleagues throughout his life was Madison Grant, who wrote the infamous The Passing of the Great Race, a book that strongly influenced Adolph Hitler. And while that might be guilt by association, Roosevelt and Grant shared very similar ideas about the world’s races, the threat to Anglo-Saxon by lesser hordes entering the nation, race suicide (that “white” women are destroying the race by not reproducing and therefore being outcompeted by lesser races who will populate the globe instead), etc. This is not someone we should idolize.

6) There’s no question that Roosevelt energized the presidency, which needed it. I obviously dislike a lot about this man. But after nearly a century of really pathetic presidents, creating a power vacuum filled by corrupt Congressmen and the capitalists who bought them off, the nation needed a president like Roosevelt to start leading the nation into the twentieth century. Roosevelt pushing for the Pure Food and Drug Act or creating the United States Forest Service were really important advances in government regulation of the country.

7) Speaking of the Forest Service, we need a discussion of Roosevelt and conservation. This is one of those histories where very good things happen for very bad reasons. The history of early conservation has multiple strains. There was a smaller urban conservation movement, mostly around clean air, that didn’t really go anywhere. There was the Forest Service, the Newlands Act, and other Progressive legislation designed to use America’s resources efficiently. This is very different from modern environmentalism, as the Hetch Hetchy controversy demonstrates and during which Roosevelt thought John Muir was a lunatic. But the broadest conservation movement, which Roosevelt was involved with from the very beginning with people such as Madison Grant and George Bird Grinnell, was about saving resources for elite white men to become elite white men. My master’s thesis is on this topic and I could talk about it forever. But the short version is that elite whites such as Roosevelt felt that the enervating, filthy, immigrant-laden cities combined with the lack of a war that made men MEN to have created a generation of wusses, especially compared to the manly generation of Civil War veterans who raised them. To save American elite manhood, at least in times when we weren’t at war, white men needed to hunt, hike, fish, take risks, explore wilderness, and come close to recreating the military man needed to rejuvenate the nation. The problem was that non-elite white men–Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, poor whites, immigrants–were using the nation’s plants and animals and land as they always had. This was suddenly defined as a threat to the nation’s future existence. So they created hunting and fishing laws such as seasons, licenses, bag limits, bans on shooting females or babies, etc, to protect those resources for themselves. What about the people who had used those resources for hundreds or thousands of years? Tough! They were arrested if they hunted in their usual fashion. Now, all of this saved the largest mammals and most colorful birds in the nation from extinction. This is a very good thing. We all benefit. It was also an elite project that caused very real hardship to the poor. Such is the complexity of history.

8) As president, Roosevelt pursued his big stick foreign policy. This is part of why Americans have loved him. But is it a good thing to be swinging your stick around at other nations? I don’t think it is. Roosevelt’s actions in Panama were grotesque and an obvious violation of Colombian sovereignty. While he kept the nation out of any wars of direct conquest, his Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine opened the door for a century of American invasions of Latin America for whatever reason we wanted, something that didn’t end until Bush invaded Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega. Over and over again, the U.S. would invade Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and other nations, based on whatever reason we had at the time and almost always to protect our chosen dictators or American financial interests. Give him credit if you want for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, it’s still hilarious that a man this bloodthirsty and who contributed to so many deaths won the Nobel Peace Prize. Might not be quite as whack as Kissinger’s award, but it’s close.

9) The 1912 campaign shows just what an utter egomaniac Roosevelt was. Sure, Taft was more conservative than Roosevelt liked. His firing of Gifford Pinchot was bad. But Roosevelt should have known that the Bull Moose Party would just throw the election to the Democrats. But when you have an ego this big–when you think you are the only man who can save the nation–this is what you do. The Progressive Party became all about Roosevelt, even though it had many prominent supporters. And like third party vanity campaigns everywhere, the whole thing fell apart once Roosevelt lost interest after the election. Roosevelt also rejected any civil rights platform, choosing to seat all-white delegations from the South despite attempts from black leaders to have a role in the campaign. There were plenty of good planks in his platform and I probably would have rather had him as president than Taft or Wilson in 1912, although given his fanatical love of war, after 1914 that might have gotten really bad really fast. But the campaign was pure ego.

10) Again, Roosevelt loved killing people. And he wanted to kill more of them. When World War I started, Roosevelt became fanatically pro-British and did a lot to move the U.S. public toward supporting the war. When the U.S. joined the war in 1917, Roosevelt really wanted to join and raise his own regiment again. Now, the Spanish-American War was a pretty amateur effort overall. It’s just that Spanish forces were really weak. By 1917, it was clear that such an effort would not work in World War I. Plus Roosevelt had nearly died on his exploratory trip in Brazil and was not in good health. So Wilson declined. TR was not happy and ended up writing a book-length screed on how much he hated Wilson. In the aftermath of the war, Roosevelt, in his last acts before his 1919 death, pushed for incredibly restrictive and near-fascist policies. He started hating immigrants even more, railed against “hyphenated Americans” and wanted a 100% Americanism program. Like many Progressives, the war took already bad ideas about immigrants and Americanization and shifted them toward government coercion, arrest, deportation, and closing the nation’s borders.

Somehow I wrote all of this without even talking about Roosevelt on labor issues. Or his explorations and scientific contributions. Or his time in the West. Or several other points for that matter. But this is a long enough post.

In conclusion, here is the classic film version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears where TR shows up. This insanity by a director who hated Roosevelt is well worth your time.

Of course, this is also the grave of Roosevelt’s second wife Edith. I can’t imagine what being married to this guy must have been like. Challenging I assume. Very challenging.

Theodore Roosevelt is buried in Youngs Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents I can write 2200+ word posts about, you can contribute to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Jefferson, I’m looking at you. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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