Roosevelt’s life in death; tides of population, imperial erotics, etc

by zunguzungu

Theodore Roosevelt’s “Biological Analogies in History” is a more interesting text than it originally seemed to me when I first read it. Then, I was all “blah, blah, biology is destiny, rise and fall, Rome, Britain, US, yadda yadda.” This time, I read it for a particular reason; I had recently discovered this amazing quote from Thomas Carlyle (from his 1838 essay “Chartism”) and — beyond the sheer unadulterated WTFawesome of it — have been thinking through how it helps me situate and contrast the particular moment in which Roosevelt was thinking about settler colonization, the turn of the 20th century (and, in case you can‘t tell, this is a pre-draft for stuff I’m writing about in my chapter).

First, the Carlyle quote, in all its splendiferous lyrical erotic imperialism, which starts from the dry problem of an overpopulated Europe (in a deeply Malthusian vein) and argues from it the dusty political argument that emigration will be an obvious next step, only by completely sexualizing it:

“if this small western rim of Europe is overpeopled, does not everywhere else a whole vacant Earth, as it were, call to us, Come and till me, come and reap me !…in a world where Canadian Forests stand unfelled, boundless Plains and Prairies unbroken with the plough ; on the west and on the east, green desert spaces never yet made white with corn ; and to the overcrowded little western nook of Europe, our Terrestrial Planet, nine-tenths of it yet vacant or tenanted by nomades, is still crying, Come and till me, come and reap me!

Is it not as if this swelling, simmering, never-resting Europe of ours stood, once more, on the verge of an expansion without parallel; struggling, struggling like a mighty tree again about to burst in the embrace of summer, and shoot forth broad frondent boughs which would fill the whole earth ? A disease; but the noblest of all, — as of her who is in pain and sore travail, but travails that she may be a mother, and say, Behold, there is a new Man born !

There’s a lot of bursting and shooting going on there, and in case you need the actual image of an actual fertile-but-virgin earth being penetrated and inseminated, Carlyle has you covered in an essay from 1831, where he had made similar rhetorical demands:

Must the indomitable millions, full of old Saxon energy and fire, lie cooped up in this Western Nook, choking one another, as in a Blackhole of Calcutta, while a whole fertile untenanted Earth, desolate for want of the ploughshare, cries: Come and till me, come and reap me!

Yeah. Carlyle is arguing within a thoroughly Malthusian idiom, but doing so in opposition to the usual pessimism; per Malthus, Europe’s development has produced an oversupply of food, producing an oversupply of people, which oversupply of labor de-values labor and leads to starvation, poverty, and Chartism. But while Malthus himself had only grudgingly come to concede that emigration would be “useful as a temporary relief” to population pressures, Carlyle is here lining up with active proponents of  government sponsored settlement in Australasia, people like Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who actively argued colonization to be “a natural means of seeking relief from the worst of our social ills.” Carlyle himself was even considering moving to New Zealand.

Anyway, seventy years separates Carlyle and Theodore Roosevelt, and a couple things have really and dramatically changed in that time. One of the most important is that the Malthusian problem of white hyper-fecundity has been inverted: Roosevelt is writing in a time in which the. problem of “race suicide” is a paramount concern.  In a speech he gave in front of the “National Congress of Mothers” in 1905, for example, then-president Roosevelt announced that while

“[t]here are many good people who are denied the supreme blessing of children…the man or woman who deliberately forego these blessings, whether from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness, self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the difference between the all-important and the unimportant,–why, such a creature merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle.”


Having read in the newspaper the fully Malthusian argument that “the ambition of any save a very rich man should be to rear two children only, so as to give his children an opportunity “to taste a few of the good things of life.’” Roosevelt takes the opportunity to get on the old bully pulpit and fulminate against “the selfish and sordid theory that the whole end of life is to “taste a few good things’”:

The intelligence of the remark is on a par with its morality…if the average family in which there are children contained but two children the nation as a whole would decrease in population so rapidly that in two or three generations it would very deservedly be on the point of extinction…Nor would such a result be in any way regrettable; for a race that practised such doctrine–that is, a race that practised race suicide–would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.

Americanists always remember the 1890 census as being the one that announced the frontier had closed, but Roosevelt had looked in it and seen something else: declining birth rates of good white people. He’d get the term “race suicide” from Edward Alsworth Ross, but he would really make it his own in this period, though he left the more nakedly racist phobias to conversations with people like Owen Wister (supposedly he worried that good white women were having only a couple children while the “while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandalbaums, and Rabinskis have eight, nine, ten”)

For people like Ross and Roosevelt, the “tide of population” which Carlyle had seen as producing social disorder for dry and utilitarian economic reasons (too many laborers reduce the value of labor, thereby impoverishing excess populations) has become a very different kind of current, a “Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” as Lothrop Stoddard put it. This sense was widespread; while white birthrates were dropping, the world was now one in which all the “swelling, simmering, never-resting” was being done by non-Europeans, in which the “expansion without parallel” was the shooting forth from South and Eastern Europe. This, to Roosevelt, is a much less noble disease.

(interestingly, as I found in this bit of commentary from Munsey’s, Roosevelt also tried to “check the cityward movement of population…realiz[ing] the need of keeping a proper balance of population between city and country. To do that, the country must be made more attractive, more livable. It must offer the inducement of larger rewards for the best effort. Socially, industrially, educationally, it must be made more inviting…Whatever governmental encouragement would tend toward turning the tide of population back to the land would increase the output of our farms, and would mean cheaper living prices for us all.”

With a little fumbling around, too, I found Josiah Strong also decrying “the tide of population which is setting so strongly from country to city, and which 1s depleting the one and congesting the other, to the detriment of both.” His verdict was that “[w]hen population decreases and roads deteriorate, there is increasing isolation, with which comes a tendency toward degeneration and demoralization. The mountain whites of the South afford an illustration of the results of such a tendency operating through several generations…living remote from civilization and out of the current of modern progress, they have been swept into eddies which have carried them back toward barbarism…If this migration continues, and no no preventive measures are devised, I see no reason why isolation, irreligion, ignorance, vice, and degradation should not increase in the country until we have a rural American peasantry, illiterate and immoral, possessing the rights of citizenship, but utterly incapable of performing or comprehending its duties.”)

In the essay you’ve been waiting for me to get back to — and if you’ve read this far, bless you for it — Roosevelt ends by asking exactly the kind of question “which we of the great civilized nations are ever tempted to ask of the future” faced with the specter of race suicide and swarming hordes of hyper-fecund non-whites:

Is our time of growth drawing to an end? Are we as nations soon to come under the rule of that great law of death which is itself but part of the great law of life? None can tell. Forces that we can see, and other forces that are hidden or that can but dimly be apprehended, are at work all around us, both for good and for evil. The growth in luxury, in love of ease, in taste for vapid and frivolous excitement, is both evident and unhealthy. The most ominous sign is the diminution in the birth-rate, in the rate of natural increase, now to a larger or lesser degree shared by most of the civilized nations of central and western Europe, of America and Australia—a diminution so great that, if it continues for the next century at the rate which has obtained for the last twenty-five years, all the more highly civilized peoples will be stationary or else have begun to go backward in population, while many of them will have already gone very far backward.

What strikes me about this passage is how glum he is. None can tell. And this uncertainty pervades the entire essay. When he refers directly to Malthus and Carlyle, of course, he narrates the triumph of the intervening seven decades, the period in which America conquered its frontier:  

“The fears once expressed by the followers of Malthus as to the future of the world have proved groundless as regards the civilized portion of the world; it is strange indeed to look back at Carlyle’s prophecies of some seventy years ago, and then think of the teeming life of achievement, the life of conquest of every kind, and of noble effort crowned by success, which has been ours for the two generations since he complained to High Heaven that all the tales had been told and all the songs sung, and that all the deeds really worth doing had been done.”

I don’t know Carlyle well enough to know why Roosevelt is thinking of him as a dour Malthusian pessimist — certainly he wasn’t in the passage I quoted — but I’m struck with how excessive Roosevelt’s protestations are in the next few lines:

“I believe with all my heart that a great future remains for us; but whether it does or does not, our duty is not altered. However the battle may go, the soldier worthy of the name will with utmost vigor do his allotted task, and bear himself as valiantly in defeat as in victory.”

However the battle may go. And the entire speech — which Roosevelt delivered at Oxford in 1910 — is framed by a biological metaphor of life and death in which the rise of civilizations are inevitably followed by their own falls.

(One of the other interesting things about this essay to me is how careful TR is to acknowledge all the ways that his analogy breaks down: “Of course, there is no exact parallelism between the birth, growth, and death of species in the animal world, and the birth, growth, and death of societies in the world of man. Yet there is a certain parallelism. There are strange analogies; it may be that there are homologies” and “as to all of these phenomena in the evolution of species, there are, if not homologies, at least certain analogies, in the history of human societies, in the history of the rise to prominence, of the development and change, of the temporary dominance, and death or transformation, of the groups of varying kind which form races or nations. Here, as in biology, it is necessary to keep in mind that we use each of the words “birth” and “death,” “youth” and “age,” often very loosely, and sometimes as denoting either one of two totally different conceptions. Of course, in one sense there is no such thing as an “old” or a “young” nation, any more than there is an “old” or “young” family…All that can properly be meant by the terms “new” and “young” is that in a given line of descent there has suddenly come a period of rapid change. This change may arise either from a new development or transformation of the old elements, or else from a new grouping of these elements with other and varied elements; so that the words “new” nation or “young” nation may have a real difference of significance in one case from what they have in another.”)

As an American delivering a speech to Britons on the death and life of empires, it’s hard not to see TR making a significant point when he talks about how the Roman Empire was transfigured in death to survive in his offspring societies. As he puts it, while “the nationality and culture of the wonderful city-builders of the lower Mesopotamian Plain have completely disappeared”:

the disappearance of the Roman Empire was of no such character. There was complete change, far-reaching transformation, and at one period a violent dislocation; but it would not be correct to speak either of the blood or the culture of Old Rome as extinct…the blood of the old Roman still flows through the veins of the modern Italian; and though there has been much intermixture, from many different foreign sources—from foreign conquerors and from foreign slaves—yet it is probable that the Italian type of to-day finds its dominant ancestral type in the ancient Latin. As for the culture, the civilization of Rome, this is even more true. It has suffered a complete transformation, partly by natural growth, partly by absorption of totally alien elements, such as a Semitic religion, and certain Teutonic governmental and social customs; but the process was not one of extinction, but one of growth and transformation, both from within and by the accretion of outside elements…When we speak of the disappearance, the passing away, of ancient Babylon or Nineveh, and of ancient Rome, we are using the same terms to describe totally different phenomena.”

His evolutionary sense of culture fits the needs of a creole and poly-ethnic nation like the US (though not particularly poly-racial, as far as he was concerned), so Rome lives on in the manner in which it mixes with other elements (white people endowed with a “semitic” religion). And since he wants to see the US as taking up a transformed version of the British empire, which it thusly supercedes, he describes how

“A nation that seemingly dies may be born again; and even though in the physical sense it die utterly, it may yet hand down a history of heroic achievement, and for all time to come may profoundly influence the nations that arise in its place by the impress of what it has done.”

But all that dying; there is such pessimism in his “Best of all is it to do our part well, and at the same time to see our blood live young and vital in men and women fit to take up the task as we lay it down; for so shall our seed inherit the earth.” In talking about life in death, he always presumes death as the precondition for his speech. His white man’s mission is already always embattled before it even begins. This is how he ends the speech:

“Let us strive hardily for success, even if by so doing we risk failure, spurning the poorer souls of small endeavor, who know neither failure nor success. Let us hope that our own blood shall continue in the land, that our children and children’s children to endless generations shall arise to take our places and play a mighty and dominant part in the world. But whether this be denied or granted by the years we shall not see, let at least the satisfaction be ours that we have carried onward the lighted torch in our own day and generation. If we do this, then, as our eyes close, and we go out into the darkness, and others’ hands grasp the torch, at least we can say that our part has been borne well and valiantly.”