Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States:
His Own Words,
Selected and Arranged by Daniel Ruddy
(Smithsonian Books, 418 pages, $27.99)
This is a very diligent and scholarly pastiche of Theodore Roosevelt’s voluminous historical reflections, put together with such skill and evident grasp of the material that it often seems it could have been composed as a single volume by the author. As anyone even slightly familiar with TR would expect, the text tends to be epigrammatic, and is carried through dozens of two-to-six page sub-chapters on historic personalities and events by Roosevelt’s invective-laden, gloriously emphatic, and usually acerbic opinions about everyone.
The ranks of those he admires are thin, distinguished, and in a few, cases, surprising. He goes to ingenious lengths to find new heights from which to praise George Washington, though he acknowledges that he was “not a genius,” and was a capable, but not consummately brilliant military commander. Rather, Roosevelt’s praise of the first president’s integrity, courage, and judgment are expressed in even greater superlatives than is conventional. The author’s intellectual snobbery does not come into play on this subject, and Washington’s astute land acquisitions in the West, which made him one of America’s wealthier men, and were not at all improper but drew on knowledge acquired in his military capacities, are not mentioned, though such factors are sometimes a terrible bugbear with TR in judging others.
Roosevelt’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln is almost as great as his admiration for Washington and is based on the usual grounds for Lincoln’s generally recognized, irresistible, claims to greatness. Almost to his own surprise, TR admires Lincoln’s gradual loss of personal animus, so that after 1858 he almost never attacked an opponent personally. It is one of Lincoln’s many distinctions that he always seemed pained rather than angered by betrayals, reversals, and the failings of others, but it is slightly surprising that TR admires that.
Andrew Jackson comes out quite well as a capable general and a fierce president who crushed secessionism for 30 years by his rough treatment of the South Carolina nullifiers and his threat to hang his vice president (John C. Calhoun). Roosevelt also admired the revocation of the charter of the Bank of the United States, even though it led, first to deflation, and then to inflation and a horrible economic depression. He ignored Jackson’s championship of slavery and his severe mistreatment of the Indians (whom Roosevelt strenuously disdained).
Beyond, that, among the presidents, the unlikely fourth place finisher is Zachary Taylor, because of his support of the Clay-Webster compromisers. (He even defends Taylor for putting down mats on the floors of the White House so he could spit on them without having to look for cuspidors.) Even more surprising than Taylor is the next nominee to the Pantheon, Chester A. Arthur, whom TR considered “very good.” He is followed by Grover Cleveland, who gets good marks as an honest, pleasant man, though over-influenced by corporate interests. There is a gentlemanly nod to the Adamses and to U.S. Grant, as a general and auto-biographer. After that, Roosevelt lays about him with a broadax and makes a hecatomb of his other predecessors and two subsequent presidents.
HIS PREMIER VICTIM is Thomas Jefferson, whose “influence upon the United States as a whole was very distinctly evil.” The Declaration of Independence is not mentioned, and Jefferson is reviled as someone who did not really believe in the central government; who fathered nullification and therefore secessionism; was “the most incapable executive that ever filled the president’s chair”; was a coward opposite the provocations that led to the war of 1812; and was “the underhanded but malignantly bitter leader of the anti-national forces” against Washington. He does credit Jefferson with being a sincere democrat and for exploring the West, but his opinion of the third president is extreme, relentless, and not entirely rational.
His strictures are often hilarious, and his description of Jefferson and Madison trying to deal with Napoleon and Talleyrand is an example: “[T]hese two timid, well-meaning statesmen… now found themselves pitted against the greatest warrior and lawgiver and one of the greatest diplomats of modern times… whose sodden lack of conscience was but heightened by the contrast of their brilliant genius and force of character — two men who were unable to so much as appreciate that there was shame in the practice of venality, dishonesty, mendacity, cruelty, and treachery.” There is some truth to all that, but Jefferson, Madison and their minister in Paris and fellow Virginian and next president, James Monroe, did make the Louisiana Purchase at a very advantageous price. TR discounts this because America was bound to get it. In fact, Britain could have got it, and protected it, as it protected Canada.
Lesser presidents are attacked with almost more ferocity than their status justified. To call Tyler “mediocre, is unwarranted flattery. He is a man of monumental littleness.” Franklin Pierce, in the words of Thomas Hart Benton, whom TR admired, was a man of “undaunted mendacity, moral callosity, and mental obliquity,” who, said TR, “had the will but lacked the courage, to be a traitor.”
Benjamin Harrison, whom he served in the Civil Service Commission, was “a genial little runt, a cold-blooded narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid, old, psalm-singing little, grey, Indianapolis toad.” William McKinley, to whom he owed his elevation to national office, “had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.” His comments on non-presidential politicians were equally declarative. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall were great men; Henry Clay “excellent,” Benton was a favorite, Franklin was important but inconstant, John Jay diligent and pure, John Hay interesting but naive, Winfield Scott a good soldier but “flatulent,” and William Jennings Bryan “a professional yodeler, a human trombone,” and a Judas goat for radical revolution.
His opinions of people who weren’t American politicians were no less amusing. Rudyard Kipling was a “bright, nervous, voluble, underbred little fellow,” but “an entertaining genius.” Tolstoy was “a sexual degenerate… a diseased mind.” The founder of the British Labour Party, Kier Hardie, was “an un-hung traitor,” George Bernard Shaw “a blue-rumped ape,” and Winston Churchill “a dreadful cad” (an outrageous charge).
TR’s assault on Woodrow Wilson is the fiercest of all. He concedes Wilson’s intelligence: “Wilson is a wonderful dialectician, with a remarkable command of language.” But he used his talents entirely for “cowardly infamy…. His soul is rotten through and through.” Again, these comments are not rational. Roosevelt claimed that The Hague Convention required that the U.S. go to war over the German invasion of Belgium, (it didn’t); and that the sinking of the Lusitania required a U.S. declaration of war on Germany. (It didn’t — Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare for two years.)
When Wilson did take the country to war, TR congratulated him in an address worthy of Lincoln and asked to take a regiment to war as he had in Cuba. This is not recounted in this book, but Wilson said Roosevelt had the irresistible charm of an adventurous boy, but didn’t want a 59-year-old former president in indifferent health (he dies the next year), going into the inferno of the Western Front. He cautioned TR that this wasn’t a Boys’ Own Annual “splendid little war” like Cuba.
That TR tired of Wilson’s humbug about being “too proud to fight” is understandable, but he should have appreciated that he led a united country into war, that he was a prophet as the first person to inspire the masses of the world with a vision of enduring peace; and that he was an extremely effective war president who mobilized and sent into battle in France huge forces with astonishing speed and decisive effect. Wilson was no Madison (of whom TR was even more contemptuous than he was of Jefferson, because of Madison’s unseemly flight from Washington before the British burned down the White House).
THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S ENERGY, brilliance, historical insights, high ethics, and strength of character are all vividly here. But there are problems. He wanted to go to war with Britain in 1895 over the border between Venezuela and British Guiana. “This country needs a war. I don’t care whether our sea coast cities are bombarded or not. We would take Canada.” This was a mad enterprise. The U.S. would not have won a war with the British Empire if it was fully engaged; Canada would have been defended, and the inhabitants of Atlantic coast cities might have become quite bored with being shelled by the insuperable Royal Navy. (Roosevelt felt Canadians were inferior, as mere colonists, even though Canada had been an independent country for 30 years by this time.) It was only three years later that Roosevelt moved to a profound Anglophilia that never deserted him thereafter, because Britain had given moral support to the U.S. in the Spanish-American War.
With all his informed and immoderate opinions, it is hard to imagine how TR was a capable president, but he was, in a time of peace when the United States was unchallenged in its hemisphere and not overly active outside it. And he did have extraordinary insights at times: “If Russia chooses to resist the growth of liberalism…she will sometime experience a red terror which will make the French Revolution pale.”
As to Japan, “Sooner or later they will try to bolster up their power by another war…we have what they want most: the Philippines… our heel of Achilles…. (Now) combatants endeavor to strike a crippling blow before the actual declaration of war. I have urged as strongly as I know how the immediate building of impregnable fortifications to protect Pearl Harbor.”
Theodore Roosevelt was a brilliant, erratic, and partly mad figure, and extremely interesting for all that, as this book very clearly and readably portrays.