Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

This is volume two of Morris’ three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt left quite an impression on me, both for Morris’ analytical and biographical gifts, and because of the less flattering portrait it offered me of Roosevelt than what I had remembered of him from H. W. Brands’ TR: The Last Romantic. In this case, that less flattering portrait was a good thing, because I believe my own political philosophies have shifted in the intervening years, and although I still admire a great many things about Roosevelt—his bookishness (love the photo of him reading with a dog on his lap while on vacation in Colorado), his physicality, his clearness of purpose—I have come to view him as one of the first if not the first modern President, pushing the limits of presidential power to leave both his own and the perceived impression of his nation’s necessity on the world.

Theodore Rex offers me more of this portrait; much more, in fact, because it chronicles his two terms as President—from the assassination of William McKinley to the inauguration of William Howard Taft. But at the same time it offers me less. In ways, Roosevelt is a more sympathetic character in Theodore Rex than he was in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, although it’s not clear to me from where the sympathy rises.


One thing is certain, Roosevelt was an odd kind of Republican, at least if judged by today’s standards. He is neither a Reagan Republican, a Compassionate Conservative, nor a Tea Partier. He believes in big government, and that business must be regulated for its own health and controlled growth—the same way a gardener would prune a bush to encourage healthier growth in desired directions. He believed that…

…perpetual, mild reform was true conservatism, in that it protected existing institutions from atrophy, and relieved the buildup of radical pressure.

Relieving the buildup of radical pressure—that’s key to understanding Roosevelt’s philosophy. He wants to regulate business not because he is anti-business, and not because he wants to protect people from its abuses. He wants to regulate because without some continual check on the power of business, the radicals in the society will rise up in numbers too great to suppress, and catastrophic anarchy may result. That’s the ultimate goal. Keep the society on an even keel. Allow business to grow and to profit—human liberty is very closely tied to that in Roosevelt’s thinking—but keep it on a leash to avoid the destructive clash of Have and Have Not.

Race Relations

Similarly, his views on race put him at odds with many of today’s Republicans—and clearly the Democrats of his day. Importantly, he was the first president to entertain an African-American at the White House. To his way of thinking, this was significant, but should not have been controversial. His guest, after all—Booker T. Washington—was an exemplary example of his race.

The President felt entirely at ease. It seemed “so natural and proper” to have Washington wield his silver. Here, dark and dignified among the paler company, was living proof of what he had always preached: that Negroes could rise to the social heights, at least on an individual basis. Collective equality was clearly out of the question, given their “natural limitations” in the evolutionary scheme of things. But a black man who advanced faster than his fellows should be rewarded with every privilege that democracy could bestow. Booker T. Washington qualified honoris causa in the “aristocracy of worth.”

Roosevelt’s views, while still racist by today’s standard, were well-intentioned. And he is genuinely surprised by the reaction offered up in the Southern press.

An early thunderclap was sounded by the Memphis Scimitar:

“The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House. It would not be worth more than a passing notice if Theodore Roosevelt had sat down to dinner in his own home with a Pullman car porter, but Roosevelt the individual and Roosevelt the President are not to be viewed in the same light.

“It is only very recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half Southern by reason of that fact. By inviting a nigger to his table he pays his mother small duty … No Southern woman with a proper self-respect would now accept an invitation to the White House, nor would President Roosevelt be welcomes today in Southern homes. He has not inflamed the anger if the Southern people; he has excited their disgust.”

The word nigger had not been seen in print for years. Its sudden reappearance had the force of an obscenity.

Obscene is right. It is something close to unbelievable to this modern reader that such a large segment of the American public could have reacted this way.

In Richmond, Virginia, a transparency of the President’s face was hissed off the Bijou screen. In Charleston, South Carolina, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman endorsed remedial genocide: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”

Tillman is, of course, referring to lynching, a practice still prevalent in Roosevelt’s time, and something he probably would have acted against if given the freedom to pursue the dictates of his conscience. But this incident with Washington, so inflamed the Southern public, that Roosevelt lost a good deal of political influence with them. Although opportunities presented themselves during his remaining terms in office to strike out against racism and murder, he demurred every time, seeking the path of least resistance instead of the compulsions of his own heart.

War and Torture

While the sections describing the state of race relations seem so out of line with our modern political climate, there are other sections, again and again throughout the book, where I encountered situations that were eerily reminiscent of scandals and politics of today. And given such resemblances, the detailed differences between then and now become all the more striking. Early in Roosevelt’s first term, a scandal erupted over accusations of torture by the American Army in its occupation of the Philippines.

No sooner had the phrases ‘kill and burn’ and ‘howling wilderness’ [references to illegal orders allegedly given to soldiers] registered on the American conscience than a third, ‘water cure,’ came out of the Committee hearings. Witness after witness testified to widespread use by American soldiers of this traditional torture, developed by Spanish priests as a means of instilling reverence for the Holy Ghost [ed., Charming!]:

“A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin … is simply thrust into his jaws … and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose … until the man gives some sign of giving in or becoming unconscious … His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.”

Other reports spoke of natives being flogged, toasted, strung up by their thumbs, and tattooed “facially” for identification.

So much for the similarities. For the differences, here’s a cable sent at Roosevelt’s behest:

The President desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts … for the very reason that the President intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work. He also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality, and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.

And what Roosevelt has America doing in the Philippines also has eerie parallels with the political situation today. As he told a group of Civil War veterans on Memorial Day, 1902:

They [the American soldiers] were fighting to impose “orderly freedom” upon a fragmented nation, according to the rules of “just severity” sanctioned by Abraham Lincoln. On Mindanao as at Gettysburg, “military power is used to secure peace, in order that it may itself be supplanted by the civil power.”

Roosevelt reminded his audience that legislation to that effect was now before Congress. There was scattered applause. “We believe that we can rapidly teach the people of the Philippine Islands … how to make good use of their freedom.”

People can debate the motives of Presidents—whether it is Roosevelt and American occupation of the Philippines or Bush and American occupation of Iraq—maybe they do intend to work toward civilian authority and maybe they don’t, but you can’t argue that both approach the world with the same paternalistic provincialism, confident in their own self-assured way that the American way is best—not just for Americans, but for everyone.

The Monroe Doctrine and the Panama Canal

What is the Monroe Doctrine? Today, it’s one of those obscure pieces of history that everyone’s heard of but almost no one knows what it is. Wikipedia can help.

The Monroe Doctrine is a policy of the United States introduced on December 2, 1823. It stated that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the America would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention.

And as you can imagine, Roosevelt was a big believer in the Monroe Doctrine. He invoked it numerous times during his life to justify military interventions in the Western Hemisphere (and beyond). As Morris artfully describes when referring to his office in the White House, it was a doctrine that perfectly matched his view of America’s role in the world.

The room’s main decoration was a huge globe. Spun and stopped at a certain angle, the orb showed the Americas floating alone and green from pole to pole, surrounded by nothing but blue. Tiny skeins of foam (visible only to himself, as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy) wove protectively across both oceans, as far south as the bulge of Venezuela and as far west as the Philippines. Asia and Australia were pushed back by the curve if the Pacific. Africa and Arabia drowned in the Indian Ocean. Europe’s jagged edge clung to one horizon, like the moraine of a retreating glacier.

When Roosevelt spoke of the Western Hemisphere, this was how he saw it—not the left half of a map counterbalanced by kingdoms and empires, but one whole face of the earth, centered on the United States. And here, microscopically small in the power center of this center, was himself sitting down to work.

And if America was going to play this role, this enforcer and protector of national sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere, then something like the Panama Canal was absolutely necessary. When Germany threatened Venezuela with warships in 1903 over some dispute over owed taxes and displaced citizens, Roosevelt fumed over the idea that hostilities might erupt while the bulk of the American Navy was off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean. The trip around the tip of South America would take far too long for all that American firepower to be either a deterrent or an effective force. Slicing the continents in two, and allowing ships to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic in days rather than months was essential to both the Monroe Doctrine and to Roosevelt’s vision of the world.

This is one of those insights that one only gains by reading real history. In our American vernacular, Roosevelt is too often said to have wanted the Panama Canal because he needed something equally world-changing to go with his tremendous ego and sense of American importance. In reality, it was much more about strategy than hubris.

But hubris was not entirely absent. The intention to build the canal, once arrived at, was supported with every expansionist and exceptionalist trick in the American playbook. When Colombia, whose government possessed the territory then known as Panama, balked at the offer America made for the land and the labor to build the canal, Roosevelt’s advisors counseled him to ignore its sovereignty.

Professor [John Basset] Moore’s memorandum argued that Panama was the only place in the Americas to build a canal “for the world.” The question of Colombian sovereignty was therefore a global rather than a regional one. All nations had a right to benefit from the opening of this great “gate of intercourse” between East and West. One nation could not delay, or demand an exorbitant fee for, that constructive advance.

In other words, because American wanted it, America should have it. I mean, who were these pesky Colombians? What gave them the right to stand in the way of global progress?

Very little, evidently. One carefully orchestrated revolution later, the fledgling republic of Panama was created and immediately recognized as an independent nation by the President of the United States. The Canal treaty followed soon after, on terms very similar to those first offered to Colombia.


But Roosevelt’s vision of America wasn’t just prescribed to the Western Hemisphere.

Our place as a nation is and must be with the nations that have left indelibly their impress on the centuries… Those that did not expand passed away and left not so much as a memory behind them. The Roman expanded, the Roman passed away, but the Roman had left the print of his law, of his language, of his masterful ability in administration, deep in the world’s history, deeply imprinted in the character of the races that came after him. I ask that this people [Americans] rise level to the greatness of its opportunities.

Here is Manifest Destiny writ large—not just the continent, but the world—couched, as always in the language of peace and prosperity.

We infinitely desire peace, and the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.

It’s the debate of the ages, isn’t it? Hawkish presidents of every century have advocated the same “peace through strength” course of action. I’m not sure I buy it, and if I were to rephrase the sentiment with my latest libertarian leanings, I would have to say that the surest way of obtaining peace was to show that we are not afraid of doing business.

But let’s put that debate aside. Roosevelt was eerily prescient about the arc of world affairs, especially with regard to the rise of Japan as a world power.

In a dozen years the English, Americans and Germans, who now dread one another as rivals in the trade of the Pacific, will have each to dread the Japanese more than they do any other nation … I believe that Japan will take its place as a great civilized power of a formidable type, and with motives and ways of thought which are not quite those of the powers of our own race. My own policy is perfectly simple, though I have not the slightest idea whether I can get my own country to follow it. I wish to see the United States treat the Japanese in a spirit of all possible courtesy, and with generosity and justice … If we show that we regard the Japanese as an inferior and alien race, and try to treat them as we have treated the Chinese; and if at the same time we fail to keep our navy at the highest point of efficiency and size—then we shall invite disaster.

In reaction to this view, Roosevelt did at least two things. He personally negotiated a settlement to the Japanese-Russian war then threatening to stalemate, and he demanded that Congress appropriate funds to build a greater number of superior battleships than any other nation on earth.

In both activities, Roosevelt tempered his indelible drive for American expansionism with the reality that America, while uniquely special, was truly one nation among many. There was a role for America to play on the world stage—a strong and important one—but ultimately, I think, it was one in which Roosevelt saw America exerting a temporizing effect on the aggressions of world politics. Much like his progressivism in the world of business, in which he saw the dangers of too much wealth accumulating in the hands of too few people, he also saw the dangers of too much power accumulating in the hands of too few nations. America would be the policeman of the world, but it would be the beat cop of the nineteenth century, not the paramilitary stormtrooper of the twenty-first.

Bits and Pieces

Some quick items worth noting that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. First, during the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan just mentioned, a young reporter observed the following:

For the first time it was borne in upon me that wars were not only not necessary, but even ridiculous; that they were wholly man-made … [I] questioned Socrates’ conclusion that to know the good is to practice it. Humanity is simply not built like that. Except for a few savage or half-savage tribes, we all know that war profits no one, that it’s only result in the world, in the words of Croesus, is that “In war the fathers bury their sons, whereas in peace the sons bury their fathers,”—the normal course. But we are no more normal than we are certain to practice to good if we know it. Those bits of wisdom from the Greek world are two and a half millennia old, but they only emphasize our persistent unwisdom.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people would come to the same epiphany? And speaking of the press, here’s another interesting parallel between Roosevelt’s and our time that relates to his use of the media.

More than any other previous occupant of the White House, Roosevelt understood that the way to manipulate reporters was to let them imagine they were helping shape policy. A “consultation” here, a confidence shared there, and the scribe was transformed into a pen for hire.

Probably not just our time, I guess. That’s a strategy that’s been with us from the very beginning.

There’s a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes on my to-read shelf, and I stumbled across this passage that makes me want to advance it to the head of the line.

In his world there was neither absolute good not absolute evil—only shifting standards of positive and negative behavior, determined by the majority and subject to constant change. Morality was not defined by God; it was the code a given generation of men wanted to live by. Truth was “what I can’t help believing.” Yesterday’s absolutes must give way to “the felt necessities of the time.”

Could anyone ever say such of thing in our modern environment and even hope to be elected?

And finally, for all you trivia buffs, Roosevelt was one of the only presidents not to take the oath of office while swearing on a Bible. In the rush of events following the death of William McKinley, it appears, that detail was overlooked.


I wanted to get those items out of the way because I really wanted to finish with this. One of the most interesting parts of Roosevelt’s life is his family and his relationships with its various members. His relationship with his father and his two wives was a prominent backstory of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and I expect his relationship with his sons, especially Kermit and Quentin, will similarly infect Colonel Roosevelt, but the deepest familial undercurrent in Theodore Rex is his relationship with his oldest daughter, Alice.

Posing with Alice afterward for a photograph of notable stiffness, he stood leaning away from her slightly, his face devoid of expression. She held herself erect, almost as tall as Nick, in white satin trimmed with old lace, a frozen Niagara of white and silver brocade cascading from her waist and down the carpeted dais.

Did Roosevelt’s masked look, and his apparent scruple not to touch Alice with his shoulder, convey an awareness that the lace covering her shoulder and sweeping in a graceful crescent across her breasts had been worn, long ago, by another Alice? And did Edith Roosevelt, who also remembered that lace with pain, have it in mind when she kissed her stepdaughter good-bye and said, not entirely jokingly, “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you leave. You have never been anything else but trouble”?

The bride, heading off to Cuba on honeymoon, was missed at least by her Mexican yellow-head parrot. For days after her departure, the White House resounded with despairing calls of “Alice—Alice—Alice.”

How unsufferably sad. I’ll steal a line from a Norman Dubie poem—the crimes of the verb to be. Alice, guilty of nothing more than reminding her father of her mother’s untimely death, leads her entire life in a state of rebellious antagonism with her father. He loves her for who she is, but cannot love her for what she represents.

No comments:

Post a Comment