Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

I remember admiring Theodore Roosevelt after reading H. W. Brands’ treatment of his life in TR: The Last Romantic. That book, and one of its key chapters, even inspired me to write my River of Doubt short story about famous fathers and less-famous sons and how an individual’s strength of character can sometimes become so all encompassing that it takes the place of the human person that gives it life.

Well, I’m a bit less admiring of Roosevelt after reading Morris’ treatment of him in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Brands and Morris are both skilled biographers, but they have different interpretations of TR’s underlying character, and given the life experiences that I’ve had between the two readings (I finished Brands in late 1998), I find Morris’ portrayal disturbing in several fundamental ways.

Essentially, what comes through more strongly in Morris’ treatment is Roosevelt’s jingoistic Americanism, and his belief that Americans as a people and as a nation were destined for greatness through imperial expansion.

In describing Roosevelt’s participation as a featured speaker at the Independence Day 1886 celebration in the small town of Dickinson, Dakota Territory, Morris says:

With all his boyish soul, he loved and revered the Fourth of July. The flags, the floats, the brass bands—even Thomas Jefferson’s prose somehow thrilled him. This particular Independence Day (the first ever held in Western Dakota) found him feeling especially patriotic. He was filled, not only with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, but with “the real and healthy democracy of the round-up.” The completion of another book, the modest success of his two ranches, his fame as the captor of Redhead Finnegan, the joyful thought of his impending remarriage, all conspired further to elevate his mood. These things, plus the sight of hundreds of serious, sunburned faces turned his way, brought out the best and the worst in him—his genuine love for America and Americans, and his vainglorious tendency to preach.

The book Morris refers to was a biography of Thomas Hart Benton, one of the first senators from the state of Missouri, and a strong proponent (like Roosevelt) of American expansion.

The most controversial chapter of the book is that devoted to Benton’s doctrine of westward expansion, which Roosevelt defines as “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” The “Oregon” of the 1840s—an enormous wilderness stretching west from the Rockies, and north from California to Alaska—was a prize that both the United States and Britain were entitled to share. But the “arrogant attitude” of Senator Benton, in claiming most of it, “was more than justified by the destiny of the great Republic; and it would have been well for all America if we had insisted even more than we did upon the extension northward of our boundaries.” Warming to his theme, Roosevelt declares that “Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would, as States of the American Union, hold positions incomparably more important, grander and more dignified than…as provincial dependencies of a foreign power…No foot of soil to which we have any title in the Northwest should have been given up; we were the people who could use it best, and we ought to have taken it all.”

I think at one time my eye would have simply glossed over some of these phrases, but now they seem to jump out at me—“…swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us...” and “…justified by the destiny of the great Republic…” seem especially egregious and indicative of Roosevelt’s unabashed “might makes right” and “we’re better than everyone else” style of Americanism.

I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit how long it takes me to learn the lessons of history—how often my eye glosses over words that contain fundamental context and understanding. As a quick aside, read this short passage about Roosevelt’s experiences in the Badlands of Dakota Territory:

Here, for thousands of square miles around, were juicy pastures, sheltered bottoms, and open stretches of range whose ability to support countless thousands of bovine animals had been demonstrated over the centuries. Now that the buffalo and red men were on their way out, cattle and white men could move in.

Forever I thought the buffalo were slaughtered mostly for sport, but this book’s analysis of the spirit of empire and colonization that pervaded Roosevelt’s thinking and that of his time has shown me that this can’t possibly be true.

Thomas Hart Benton was not the only book Roosevelt wrote. Indeed, Roosevelt was, among many other things, a published author of some note, and these themes show up again and again in his books. One critic, reading Roosevelt’s History of the City of New York, said this:

“Mr. Roosevelt preaches too much. He lays down the singular proposition that a feeling of broad, radical, intense Americanism is necessary if good work is to be done in any direction…The sooner we get over talking about ‘American’ systems of philosophy, and ethics, and art, and devote ourselves to what is true, and right, and beautiful, the sooner we shall shake off our provincialism.”

Probably nowhere is this chest-beating Americanism more prevalent than in Roosevelt’s campaign for, participation in, and myth-making triumph in the Spanish-American War. He was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, serving in the first McKinley Administration, and did about everything he could to maneuver the country into the war, including ordering (probably without the authority to do so) the Navy to annex the Phillipines as some kind of protection against global domination with Spain. When war with Spain in Cuba eventually came, Roosevelt immediately resigned his position with the Navy and went on to lead a regiment in two of the most famous battles of the war.

And it was, of course, in Cuba and on San Juan Hill where the myth of Teddy Roosevelt was finally and forever enshrined in people’s memory. One eyewitness described Roosevelt’s performance like this:

Perhaps a dozen of Roosevelt’s men had passed into the thicket before he did. Then he stepped across the wire himself, and, from that instant, became the most magnificent soldier I have ever seen. It was as if that barbed-wire strand had formed a dividing line in his life, and that when he stepped across it he left behind him in the bridle path all those unadmirable and conspicuous traits which have so often caused him to be justly criticized in civic life, and found on the other side of it, in that Cuban thicket, the coolness, the calm judgment, the towering heroism, which made him, perhaps, the most admired and best beloved of all Americans in Cuba.

Talk about writing for posterity. It’s hard for me to believe this is an accurate depiction of thoughts that took place during the battle, untinted by the knowledge of Roosevelt’s subsequently meteoric rise from retired Army colonel to the Governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, and the Presidency.

But let that pass. What I don’t like most is Roosevelt’s own attitude about the war, his special role in it, and what he evidently felt it had released him to do.

For Roosevelt himself, the “crowded hour” atop San Juan Heights had been one of absolute fulfillment. “I would rather have led that charge…than served three terms in the U.S. Senate.” And he would rather die from yellow fever as a result than never to have charged at all. “Should the worst come to the worst I am quite content to go now and to leave my children at least an honorable name,” he told Henry Cabot Lodge. “And old man, if I do go, I do wish you would get that Medal of Honor for me anyhow, as I should awfully like the children to have it, and I think I earned it.”

With fulfillment came purgation. Bellicose poisons had been breeding in him since infancy. During recent years the strain had grown virulent, clouding his mind and souring the natural sweetness of his temperament. But at last he had had his bloodletting. He had fought a war and killed a man. He had “driven the Spaniard from the New World.” Theodore Roosevelt was at last, incongruously but wholeheartedly, a man of peace.

One can’t help but wonder how much of American history would have been different if Roosevelt could have found a less bloodthirsty way of proving his own manhood to his own satisfaction. Indeed, this equation of manliness and bravado seems cemented in who Roosevelt was.

…his tirades on the currently fashionable topic—became alarmingly harsh. “What matters a few broken bones to the glories of inter-collegiate sport?” he cried at a Harvard Club dinner. (Meanwhile, not far away in hospital, the latest victim of football savagery lay paralyzed for life.) He declared publicly that he would “disinherit” any son of his who refused to play college games. And in private, through clenched teeth: “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up as a weakling.”

Of course, Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed as an early Air Force pilot in World War I, charging off to prove his manhood in the same fashion his father had and, true to form, Roosevelt, although mortified with sadness, was as proud as he could be.

But despite these shortcomings, as the force of Roosevelt’s character shines through in Morris’ prose as well as it did in Brands’, it attains a certain and never-ending buoyancy that I do find appealing. This is from Morris’ prologue:

Theodore Roosevelt is a man of such overwhelming physical impact that he stamps himself immediately on the consciousness. “Do you know the two most wonderful things I have seen in your country?” says the English statesman John Morely. “Niagara Falls and the President of the United States, both great wonders of nature!” Their common quality, which photographs and paintings fail to capture, is a perpetual flow of torrential energy, a sense of motion even in stillness. Both are physically thrilling to be near.

And his bookishness is also something that cannot be failed to be mentioned. This extended passage concludes Morris’ rich prologue, which is constructed as a snapshot of Roosevelt’s activities on a particular day in his Presidency—New Year’s Day, 1907.

Later in the afternoon, the President, his wife, and five of his six children are seen cantering off for a ride in the country. Although reporters cannot follow him through the rest of the day, enough is known of Roosevelt’s domestic habits to predict its events with some accuracy. Returning for tea, which he will swig from an outsize cup, Roosevelt will take advantage of the holiday quietness of his dark-green office to do some writing. Besides being President of the United States, he is also a professional author. The Elkhorn Edition of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, just published, comprises twenty-three volumes of history, natural history, biography, political philosophy, and essays. At least two of his books, The Naval War of 1812 and the four-volume Winning of the West, are considered definitive by serious historians. He is also the author of many scientific articles and literary reviews, not to mention an estimated total of fifty thousand letters—the latest twenty-five of which he dashed off this morning.

In the early evening the President will escort his family to No. 1733 N Street, where his elder sister Bamie will serve chocolate and whipped cream and champagne. After returning to the White House, the younger Roosevelts will be forcibly romped into bed, and the elder given permission to roller-skate for an hour in the basement. As quietness settles down over the Presidential apartments, Roosevelt and his wife will sit by the fire in the Prince of Wales Room and read to each other. At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute.

This is the time of day he loves best. “Reading with me is a disease.” He succumbs to it so totally—on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door—that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text.

The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. “Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.

On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (“until I could stand them no longer”), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jöhn Uhl, “a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,” and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history.

The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, “doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.” Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell.

Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of present-day Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.

Theodore Roosevelt, for whatever faults I may wish to find in his political philosophy, was a reader and a writer—and he continually sought to expand his knowledge and understand his world. This devotion exposed him to a collection of ideas almost unique to someone of his day, teetering as he was on the cusp of the 20th century, and it gave him a kind of eternal optimism for the progress of the human species.

“At no period of the world’s history,” says Roosevelt, “has life been so full of interest, and of possibilities of excitement and enjoyment.” Science has revolutionized industry; Darwin has revolutionized thought; the globe’s waste spaces are being settled and seeded. A man of ambition has unique opportunities to build, explore, conquer, and transform. He can taste “the fearful joy” of grappling with large political and administrative problems. “If he is observant, he notes all around him the play of vaster forces than have ever before been exerted, working, half blindly, half under control, to bring about immeasurable results.”

It almost humanistic, this perspective, mixed as it is with Roosevelt’s own brand of individualism and imperialism. It seems clear to me that his constant reading and the consciousness expanding that came with it seasoned his views in a strange and forward-looking way, but unfortunately couldn’t quite redeem them.

During his years as a rancher, Roosevelt had acquired plenty of anti-Indian prejudice, strangley at odds with his enlightened attitude to blacks. But his research into the great Indian military heroes for The Winning of the West had done much to moderate this. Now, touring Pine Ridge and Crow Creek on behalf of the Great White Father, he looked on the red man not as an adversary but as a ward of the state, whom it was his duty to protect.

Roosevelt describes his view like this:

Here we have a group of beings who are not able to protect themselves; who are groping toward civilization out of the darkness of heredity and ingrained barbarism, and to whom, theoretically, we are supposed to be holding out a helping hand. They are utterly unable to protect themselves. They are credulous and easily duped by a bad agent, and they are susceptible of remarkable improvement when the agent is a good man, thoroughly efficient and thoroughly practical. To the Indians the workings of the spoils system at the agencies is a curse and an outrage…it must mean that the painful road leading upward from savagery is rendered infinitely more difficult and infinitely more stony for the poor feet trying to tread it.

This innate sense, that the American Indian represents the savage and barbarism, and that the European immigrant and their descendants represent civilization and progress, is ubiquitous in Roosevelt’s thinking, as it remains in the thinking of many today. His multi-volume epic, The Winning of the West, is absolutely rife with it—in fact, seems to depend on it for its narrative cohesion. In it, Roosevelt says things like:

During the past three centuries the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces had been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its importance.

He assails the “warped, perverse, and silly morality” that would preserve the American continent “for the use of a few scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership.”

And concludes that:

The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drove the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him. American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori—in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid deep the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people…it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.

They say one should not judge historical figures by the standards of modern times, but I’m not sure that’s what I’m doing when I find myself recoiling at these words. There were plenty who criticized Roosevelt for these views in his own time.

But Morris, like the good biographer he is, stops short of casting judgment, and rather allows his subject to hang—for good or bad—by his own thoughts and deeds. The most profound chapter in the book is the 18th—called The Universe Spinner—which focuses more than most on Roosevelt’s worldview, juxtaposing it against his participation in the festivities associated with the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Morris writes:

Grover Cleveland’s adjectives on Opening Day—splendid, magnificent, grand, vast—were no different from those Roosevelt himself had lavished on America in all his books. The symbolism of the flags, and of the little Spanish admiral dwarfed by a three-hundred pound American President, was pleasing to him, but not revelatory. Nine years before, in his Fourth of July oration to the cowboys of Dickinson, he had hoped “to see the day when not a foot of American soil will be held by any European power,” and instinct told him that that day was fast approaching. When it came, it would bring out what some consider his best, what others consider the worst in him. This overriding impulse has been given many names: Jingoism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Chauvinism, even Fascism and Racism. Roosevelt preferred to use the simple and to him beautiful word Americanism.

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