The rise of Theodore Roosevelt

I’m interested in the Progressive Era of a century ago because in many ways its issues were the same as those of today—immigration, globalization, foreign military intervention and corrupt relationships between government and monopolistic business.

Theodore Roosevelt, a many-sided, larger-than-life figure, was the leading personality of that era.  I recently finished reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, which deals with TR’s pre-presidential career.  It is as readable as a good novel, and won the Pulitzer Price for 1979.  Morris later wrote Theodore Rex, about TR’s presidency, and Colonel Roosevelt, about his post-presidential career.

Roosevelt would not be considered a progressive today.  He was an imperialist and a warmonger, although, unlike most of today’s warmongers, he was eager to take part in the fighting himself.  He believed in British and American world supremacy, based on the superior qualities of the Anglo-Saxon “race”.

His pre-presidential progressivism consisted mainly in fighting for honest government, and in being willing to speak frankly of “the criminal rich class.”  In that era, mere honesty was important and rare, just as it is today.  It was necessary to break up the corrupt relationship between corporations and government before anything else constructive could be accomplished.

Most Americans know the story of how TR built himself up a weak, asthmatic young boy into a successful college boxer, cowpuncher, big game hunter and volunteer cavalry officer who led the Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

The fact that he was a serious intellectual is not so well known.  He held his own with people like Henry Adams.  All his idle moments were devoted to serious reading.  Once he went on vacation for a month and, to pass the time, wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell.  He wrote 14 books in all.  At least two of his work, The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West, are read by serious historians today.

That’s not all.  He was a rancher who rode with cowboys in roundups.  He was a deputy sheriff who tracked down desperadoes and brought them to justice.  He made contributions to the science of ornithology and the art of taxidermy.  He was one of the founders of the U.S. conservation movement.  He had as wide a range of interests and as powerful an intellect as anyone who ever occupied the White House, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson.

Theodore Roosevelt – he hated to be called “Teddy” – does not fit into today’s liberal vs. conservative, Team Blue vs. Team Red categories.  It is good to be reminded that today’s political divisions are not eternal, and that the political divisions of the past cut across different lines.  It is also good to be reminded of what a real leader is like.

TR was born into New York’s social elite.  Most of his peers regarded politics as too inherently grubby and corrupt for a gentleman to participate in.  But Roosevelt said he wanted to be a member of the “governing class,” and started with precinct politics in New York’s Republican machine.  In those days, there were big-city Republican as well as Democratic machines.

His early career consisted of being given positions of nominal authority, and leveraging those positions into real authority.  He was able to accomplish important reforms as a member of the New York assembly, the U.S. civil service commission and the New York police commission through sheer force of personality, hard work, mastery of detail and ability to appeal to public opinion.  As assistant secretary of the Navy, a subordinate position, he instigated war with Spain.

He was a pioneer in the use of publicity and celebrity to promote his political ambitions.  He cultivated journalists such as Richard Harding Davis, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White.  He campaigned successfully for governor of New York accompanied by Rough Riders who accompanied him in his famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, and used his popularity to checkmate political bosses such as New York Senator Thomas Platt.  It was Platt who arranged to have him kicked upstairs to vice-president.  The book ends with Roosevelt being notified of the death of President McKinley.

Theodore Roosevelt was not a liberal by today’s definition.  In this stage of his life, he said that strikers should be shot dead in the streets, and that the cowboys on his ranch would be happy to do it.  He thought William Jennings Byran, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896 and 1900, was a dangerous revolutionary.  But he was more friendly with working people, immigrants and African-Americans than were most upper-class politicians of his era.

But he fought corruption, promoted civil service reform and sought to separate corporate interests from government.  This was important.  Without effective and honest government, nothing else could be accomplished.

He had an interesting relationship with Grover Cleveland, the conservative Democratic reformer who preceded TR as governor of New York and president of the United States.  Both were partisans who always supported their party’s ticket, but found ways to work together.

Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken imperialist.  Few today speak as he did, although many may think as he did.  He thought the Anglo-Saxon “race” was destined to rule the world.  He thought it only natural that strong nations would conquer weak nations.  He said wars against “savages” were always justified; he welcomed the replacement of Indians and buffalo by cowboys and cattle.  He thought it was the manifest destiny of the United States to create an overseas empire, just as it had been U.S. destiny to overrun the North American continent.

Masculinity and manhood were central values to him.  He attended Harvard when all college men were expected to take part in sports.  TR was runner-up to the Harvard lightweight boxing championship.  In later life, he opposed proposals to reduce the risk of injury in football and other college sports.  Injury and the risk of injury helped turn boys into men, he said.

He believed war was the highest expression of manhood.  He despised pacifists.  The most glorious hour of his life was the charge up San Juan Hill.  “All men who feel any power of joy in battle,” he wrote later, “know what it is like when the wolf rises in the heart.”  Not that he was a glory hound who neglected his men—he looked after them and they loved him.

In his gusto for life, in his combativeness, in his prolific writings, in his romantic ideas of empire and war, TR resembled Winston Churchill, another larger-than-life figure I can’t help but admire despite some of his opinions.  Roosevelt used the phrase “blood, sweat and tears” in a speech to the Naval War College in 1897, decades before Churchill used it in the Battle of Britain.  Both were the kind of likable egotist who does not need to tear others down in order to build up his own self-esteem.  Even though I disagree with many of their ideas, I enjoy being imaginatively in their company.

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