In the Words of Theodore Roosevelt by Theodore Roosevelt by Theodore Roosevelt - Read Online

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In the Words of Theodore Roosevelt - Theodore Roosevelt

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When Cornell University Press invited me to edit a collection of Theodore Roosevelt quotations, I accepted for two reasons. From boyhood on, Roosevelt rarely passed up an opportunity to put his experiences, ideas, and opinions in writing. And among the millions of words he wrote, thousands still have the power to inspire, illuminate, and amuse.

Soon after Roosevelt’s death, many of his works were collected and published in two massive editions, one spanning twenty volumes, the other twenty-four. Later came a tome of quotations (674 oversized pages packed with small type) and an eight-volume scholarly edition of his letters. While indispensable to historians and biographers, these gigantic compendia daunt nearly everyone else. In the Words of Theodore Roosevelt is not the world’s first slender book of his quotations for the general reader, but it is the first to be published by a university press and, to the best of my knowledge, the first intended for both general and academic audiences. For the scholar there are endnotes, citations to original sources, a bibliographic apparatus and, on page 205, a note on editorial method. Suggestions for further reading, compiled with the general reader in mind, appear on page 207.

Additional insights into Roosevelt’s life and times can be pleasurably acquired by visiting various places: his birthplace in New York City; his ranch near Medora, North Dakota; the home where he lived most of his adult life, Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York; and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Up-to-date information for planning a visit to any of these sites is available on the Internet.

Historians give Theodore Roosevelt high marks as a president, generally ranking him fourth or fifth—behind George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, and either just ahead or just behind Woodrow Wilson. As president, Theodore Roosevelt is most often remembered for his visionary conservation programs, his Big Stick in foreign policy, and the Square Deal, his effort to curb the excesses of the industrial and financial behemoths of his day. But in many other areas he was a conventional upper-class Victorian with social attitudes that were out of tune with modern egalitarian sensibilities. What is an editor to do with the undeniably regressive side of this remarkably progressive president? Which is the real Theodore Roosevelt—the one who invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, or the one who dishonorably discharged 150 black soldiers from the U.S. Army on the basis of allegations that did not hold up? Which is a man’s truest face—his best or his worst?

I have decided to discuss Roosevelt’s prejudices in the introduction and to select quotations that I thought would interest a twenty-first-century reader. The unjust dismissal of the black soldiers and his conviction that the savages of the American West should not be allowed to obstruct the advance of Anglo-Saxon civilization cannot be erased from the record. But his prejudices are a reminder that even a person as broadminded, forward-thinking, and sympathetic as Theodore Roosevelt was not all-seeing. If he deserves our reproach, he also invites the broadminded, forward-thinking, and sympathetic among us to look in the mirror. At numerous points in gathering, selecting, typing, confirming, arranging (and rearranging) quotations, I had the support of my own small band of Rough Riders from Columbia University’s School of the Arts: Jana Wright, dean of academic administration, along with current and former graduate students from the School’s Writing Program—Marin Sardy, Dana Burnell, and Matthew Parker. Matthew deserves a medal for conspicuous gallantry and unfailingly good-natured service during a summer when I was besieged by triple vision and double eye surgeries. Duane A. Young, M.D., graciously agreed to read the literature on Roosevelt’s health problems and greatly expanded my understanding of them. Long before there was a manuscript, Michael McGandy, my editor at Cornell University Press, persuaded Douglas Brinkley, Kathleen Dalton, and Tweed Roosevelt to review the proposal for such a book. Kathleen also reviewed the first draft and gave me the benefit of her vast knowledge of the strenuous life of Theodore Roosevelt. Special thanks to Sharon Kilzer of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University for last-minute assistance with one of the illustrations. The book has also been refined by Michael’s editorial judgments and advice as well as by a multitude of contributions from his colleagues. I thank them all. If the original Rough Rider ever enjoyed a run as smooth as this one has been, I have yet to read about it.



While Daring Greatly

Theodore Roosevelt liked to be thought of as a man of action, and that he was. He ranched. He hunted and explored. He fought in a war. And as president of the United States, he exercised his power to the full, maintaining that he was free to pursue any course of action not expressly prohibited by the Constitution.

Roosevelt was also a man of words. All his life, he read voraciously and wrote prolifically. At ten, he was reading Darwin. At eleven, he conducted his first scientific study and recorded the results in About Insects and Fishes, Natural History, a forty-page notebook filled with the knowledge he had gained from his ofservation of their habbits. That his study had a preface shows something of the seriousness of his reading, and the first sentences show that he understood both the function of a preface and the scientist’s ambition to add to the sum of human knowledge: All these insects are native of North America. Most of the insects are not in other books.¹

Before this budding natural historian was out of his teens, he published The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin County, N.Y., an annotated list of the species he and a friend had identified in the region.² His first book, The Naval War of 1812, was published when he was twenty-three. Three dozen books followed—histories, natural histories, biographies, an autobiography, accounts of his outdoor adventures, and collections of the opinion pieces he wrote for magazines and newspapers. As a young man he wrote for the Atlantic, Harper’s Weekly, and the North American Review, among others, and after his presidency he earned his living as a columnist for Outlook and Metropolitan magazines and the Kansas City Star, which syndicated his column to hundreds of newspapers across the country.

There was more: hundreds of state papers and speeches written without the aid of speechwriters and an estimated 150,000 letters. Many were two-line responses to admirers and autograph-seekers, but he also wrote hundreds of thoughtful letters to family and friends as well as an impressive array of long letters on subjects that interested him: politics and government, international affairs, conservation, social reform, history and natural history, hunting, literature, and war. The novella-length letter he wrote to the historian George O. Trevelyan after a two-month tour of Europe in 1910 remains an indispensable portrait of the Continent on the eve of the Great War.³

As a writer, Roosevelt tended toward verbosity and rarely composed a sentence that was a thing of beauty. But his prose was clear and forceful—tinglingly alive, as one of his contemporaries put it. When writing about animals or the landscape, he was content to describe, which he did uncommonly well because of his knowledge of the natural world and the joy in took in it. When addressing his fellow humans in person, he preached. The presidency, as he famously said, was a bully pulpit. He rarely missed an opportunity to sprint up its steps and tell the country what it ought to do.

Whether Roosevelt’s fellow citizens agreed with his pronouncements or not, they never had to wonder what he was trying to say. He painted his thoughts boldly and brightly, out of a conviction that a good speech had to be as simple and direct as a circus poster. On the political stage, Roosevelt had a keen ear for action-packed words and phrases: the strenuous life, the Big Stick, the Square Deal, the man in the arena. His insults were often original and always picturesque: lunatic fringe, muckraker, malefactors of great wealth. (In the privacy of his letters, he often went further, referring to a newspaper reporter he disliked as a copper-riveted idiot, George Bernard Shaw as a blue-rumped ape, and Woodrow Wilson—the bane of his later years—as a Byzantine logothete and a dexterous thimble-rigger.)

As a reader, Roosevelt immersed himself in the natural sciences and ventured far beyond. He enjoyed fiction, especially detective stories and novels with happy endings. He could quote poetry by the yard. On his travels abroad, he regularly surprised his hosts with his knowledge of their legends and folklore. And he claimed to love history because it demonstrated that previous generations were as prone to folly as his own. But he also read history for its power to transport him to worlds where he could have the vicarious pleasure of keeping company with kings and soldiers as they did great deeds. The thinking that went into his presidential decisions was often informed by the lessons he drew from his extensive knowledge of the triumphs and disasters of the past.

The first Roosevelt in North America, Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt, arrived in the 1640s, when New York City was New Amsterdam, chief settlement of the colony of New Netherland. He settled in New Amsterdam, did well, and each generation of his descendants seemed to fare even better. They prospered as bankers, investors in real estate and securities, importers of glass. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Roosevelts, as they had taken to calling themselves, were one of the city’s wealthiest families.

Theodore Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Sr., started out in his father’s employ but put the bulk of his energies into philanthropy and civic affairs. He played a significant role in the founding and funding of a children’s orthopedic hospital, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Children’s Aid Society, and other charities. His wife, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was the daughter of a Georgia merchant who owned some thirty slaves and an interest in a cotton mill. Thee and Mittie, as they were known, married in 1853, when he was twenty-two and she was eighteen. Between 1855 and 1861, they had four children: Anna, Theodore Jr., Elliott, and Corinne. The junior Theodore was born on October 27, 1858, in the family’s brownstone at 28 East 20th Street. He and his siblings were the seventh generation of Roosevelts to be born in Manhattan.

When the Civil War began, Mittie’s brothers volunteered on the Confederate side. Thee supported the Union cause and wanted to enlist, but Mittie, who was anxious and in delicate health, argued that it would kill her if he fought against her brothers. Thee exercised his option to hire a man to go in his place and looked for other ways to serve the Union. He joined a local cavalry unit established to defend New York City in case of a Confederate attack and, with military families in mind, he and two friends persuaded Congress to establish a program enabling soldiers to send home part of their pay. At their own expense, the friends visited the New York divisions of the Union Army to explain the program and encourage soldiers to enroll.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had many fond memories of his early years, but one phase of his childhood has come to overshadow all others, largely because of its prominence in his autobiography: his conquest of fear and physical weakness. His frailty was a result of asthma, a disease for which there was then no effective treatment, and his triumph began with a humiliation at the hands of two bullies. He was thirteen, traveling by stagecoach to the Maine woods to recover from an asthmatic attack. The bullies, finding him too puny for a fistfight, merely toyed with him, an experience he found mortifying. He confided in his father, who arranged for boxing lessons, and the boy vowed that he would never again be in such a helpless position.

Early biographers of Theodore Roosevelt read a great deal into the episode. Admirers used it to explain his fearlessness and resolve, while detractors saw it as an emotional wound that made him self-absorbed and confrontational. If there can be no hard reckoning of how significant the incident was, there is no doubt that the memory of his tormentors and his helplessness remained tinglingly alive. It seems unlikely that a boy in good health would have grown into the man who invented and championed the Strenuous Life, his antidote to the mental, moral, and physical softness of the Gilded Age. The Big Stick of his foreign policy was not a club to be used against the weak but a weapon to be brandished at the world’s bullies. The Square Deal, his economic policy, was an effort to use the power of the federal government to protect the public from the bullies of capitalism—monopolists, ruthless employers, perpetrators of securities fraud, and purveyors of tainted meat and adulterated medicines. Throughout his adult life, he despised weakness of the moral variety but insisted that the strong had a duty to care for those who were weak through no fault of their own: children, the sick, the poor, and the aged. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. died in 1878, when he was forty-six and his namesake was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Harvard. The son kept a painting of his father nearby for the rest of his life and always described him as the finest man I ever knew.

Roosevelt entered Harvard with the idea of becoming a naturalist but graduated in June 1880 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and an ambition that was both grandiose and wildly inappropriate for one of his social position. I intended to be one of the governing class, he wrote in his autobiography. The men he knew best, the men in the clubs of social pretension and the men of cultivated taste and easy life, laughed at him. Politics was low, they told him—not a fit occupation for a gentleman. He thought that if that proved true, he would probably have to give it up, but he resolved not to quit, he wrote, until I had made the effort and found out whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble.⁸ Hedging his bet, Roosevelt enrolled in Columbia Law School in September. And in October, on his twenty-second birthday, he got married. His bride was a seventeen-year-old New England blueblood, Alice Hathaway Lee of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Restless in law school and eager to embark on his political career, Roosevelt allied himself with the city’s Republicans and in 1881 won election to the New York State Assembly. Politics—highly verbal, combative, awash in opportunities for initiative and action—fit perfectly with Theodore Roosevelt’s temperament. He sought out kindred spirits in the assembly and welded them into a group that soon became known as the Roosevelt Republicans. (When his fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt, a generation younger, was elected to the New York State Senate, a political boss allegedly said, You know these Roosevelts. This fellow is still young. Wouldn’t it be safer to drown him before he grows up?)⁹ The Roosevelt Republicans took on the bossism of both parties and were instrumental in electing Theodore as minority leader in his second term.

Roosevelt instinctively understood the value of working across party lines and forming alliances with people from worlds far different from his own. He assisted the Democratic governor, Grover Cleveland, with civil service reform and abandoned the prevailing convictions of his constituents in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District to help the labor organizer Samuel Gompers win a ban on the home manufacture of cigars. Roosevelt had expected to take the other side but changed his mind after Gompers took him to see the tenements where cigars were made. Prolonged exposure to raw tobacco in tight, unventilated quarters was causing a variety of serious lung, eye, and skin ailments, especially in children. Roosevelt persuaded the assembly to outlaw cigar manufacturing at home, but his victory was short-lived. A judge struck down the law on the grounds that it violated an individual’s right to do as he chose in his own home. As Roosevelt watched other social and economic reforms meet the same fate, he concluded that Big