The Real of Theodore Roosevelt

by zunguzungu

This is a piece of text that I wrote when I was trying to figure out how I was positioning TR in my chapter. It probably won’t end up in the final version in this form, as I was really still thinking out loud. But it seemed to follow nicely out of my Dewey Cox piece yesterday, so here you go. Enjoy!

The appearance of transparent simplicity was an asset for Roosevelt, and while it is part of what makes him irresistible to historians, it is just as much a trap for us toad. He often characterized himself as a plain speaker, and the ability to not only communicate his positions, but to communicate the image of himself as a plain speaker, a person whose actions transparently reflected his principles, was a powerful tool. After all, the idea that he was a public servant without artifice, and that he was a man whose ruling beliefs – whether or not you agreed with them – were a reliable index of what he would do and say caused both his enemies to underestimate his cunning and his allies to underestimate his ambition. It’s impossible to say how calculated this really was, of course (and important not to try), but it also doesn’t really matter too much: the important thing is not to fall into the same trap by taking the appearance for reality. Imagining that his actions and positions simply express a set of beliefs and ideologies (or even a “worldview”) might flatter the historian’s ego by positioning himself or herself outside the ideological blinders that blinded a person like Roosevelt, but doing so all smooths out the constitutive tangles and contradictions of his thought and politics. It isn’t in his consistencies that we will find the true Roosevelt, I argue, but in the manner in which he finessed, mediated, and understood his inconsistencies.

In this sense, not only was Roosevelt’s thinking on race not reducible to the question of whether or not he was racist, but the question of what he believed to be true about the nature and significance of human diversity is less important than the manner in which he – strategically and carefully – navigated the minefield of conflicting and contradictory beliefs that made up the American political landscape. After all, the man who so openly proclaimed a white imperialist vision of world history, who could quite easily justify the dispossession of non-white races in the name of racial superiority, also applauded Japanese accession to world power status and explicitly imagined a future in which the darker races would have surpassed the white race in terms of civilization and accomplishment. He thought that “the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others the most far-reaching in importance,”[1] and positioned the American “winning” of the West as the latest and greatest chapter in that history, but he also firmly believed that a place had to made for the American Indian (or any racial other) to join into that history . And the president who presided over an important chapter in the formalization of Jim Crow and the legitimizing of lynch law justice in the South was also the president who invited a black man to dine with him in the White House, at a not insignificant political cause.

One way to make sense of this inconsistency would be to highlight the significant distinctions one finds in the tone and substance of Roosevelt’s public pronouncements and his private correspondence; in this sense, it is true that his “private” statements can easily be described as much more unprintably racist. But flattering ourselves by thinking that his correspondence represents the “real” Roosevelt is itself a kind of attractive fiction, and a misleading one. As Edmund Morris notes, a great deal of Roosevelt’s “private” correspondence was clearly intended for posterity, starting very early in his career, and the gaps and silences within that “private” record show a strong editorial hand at work long before the modern historian ever got close to it. Not only was Roosevelt the first president to understand the value and potency of rhetorical and media, but he was, as a historian himself, profoundly aware of and careful about the manner in which he would, himself, enter that historical record.

[1] TR wrks VII.108