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Bully!

A review of The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, edited by H.W. Brands, and Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris

By Jean M. Yarbrough

Posted February 13, 2003

This review appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Click here to send a comment.

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During the 2000 election campaign, Theodore Roosevelt's stock soared to new heights, as politicians and pundits lauded his strong stand on campaign finance reform, his call for national greatness, and his vigorous use of executive power. Today, America is engaged in a shadowy war on multiple fronts, the economic bubble that fueled the go-go '90s has burst, and every day brings fresh revelations of corporate corruption. Yet, these events have only strengthened the appeal of the old Rough Rider. Can these books help us to understand why? More important, still, can they help us to judge whether the T.R. revival is good for our republican institutions?

When seeking to understand the man, it is useful to begin with his own words, and H.W. Brands, author of T.R.: The Last Romantic, has assembled a generous sample of his letters beginning with his boyhood and ending with the death of his son Quentin, in France, during World War I. The only period not adequately represented is the disastrous Bull Moose campaign of 1912. To several correspondents Roosevelt confessed that he did not expect to beat Wilson, but that he felt compelled to run on principle against Taft and the "stand pat" Republicans. Did his closest friends support him in this futile campaign? It's hard to know from this collection. Alas, Professor Brands offers very little by way of editorial commentary; not only does he not explain the criteria for inclusion, but he provides no context and only very occasionally identifies the recipients. A related problem is that the collection includes only letters by Roosevelt, and none to him, with the predictable result that the correspondence takes on something of the character of listening to one side of a telephone conversation. But, on the whole, these are quibbles. For nothing better reveals that combination of restless intelligence, boundless moral energy, manly virtue cum Victorian sentimentality, and devastating wit—especially when directed at his political enemies—than T.R.'s own muscular prose. To immerse oneself in these letters is to understand exactly what Henry Adams meant when he wrote that Roosevelt displayed "the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act."

Paradoxically, for one who preferred doing to thinking, the letters make clear that he was a voracious reader, with self-described "priggish" tastes, who looked for the moral meaning in literature and history. Henry James he dismissed as a "miserable little snob," a former American who amused himself writing "polished, pointless, uninteresting stories about the upper social classes in England." Chaucer he found enjoyable, but "needlessly filthy." Tolstoy, he declared, oscillated between pacifism and debauchery. T.R. read widely and everywhere. In pursuit of boat thieves in the Dakotas, he took along Matthew Arnold. Hunting big game in Africa, he came belatedly to appreciate the full range of Shakespeare's plays. While president, he read Aristotle's Politics and confided to Henry Cabot Lodge that he took "immense comfort" from reading and re-reading Lincoln's speeches.

Asked by Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler to name the books he has read during his first two years in the White House, Roosevelt rattled off a three-page list that would shame most doctoral students today: parts of Herodotus and Thucydides, a little of Plutarch, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, and Aristophanes. Among modern authors, he had made his way through Bacon, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Macaulay, Scott, Dickens, Stevenson, Tolstoy, and a long string of American novelists and poets. Yet none of this reading got in the way of his prodigious doing. In another letter (which seems to fit Alice Roosevelt's definition of a "posterity letter") written in the same year (1903) to Lyman Abbott, editor of Outlook, magazine, Roosevelt identified six affirmative steps that he took as president with respect to the relations between labor and capital. He established the power of the government to regulate the trusts by successfully bringing suit against the Northern Securities holding company; set up a Bureau of Corporations to regulate and supervise corporations engaged in interstate commerce; signed a law banning railroad rebates; summoned together coal operators and miners to settle a coal strike that was threatening the public welfare; established an open shop policy for government workers; and finally, sent troops to restore order when a miners' strike out West turned violent.

A constant theme of this and numerous other letters is the need to strike a balance between the conflicting claims of the wealthy few and the many laboring poor, while at the same time reining in the respective vices of each class, viz., the arrogant presumption of the rich that they are above the law and the equally dangerous resentment and envy of those at the bottom of the social order. Unlike others of his class, Roosevelt possessed the true aristocrat's contempt for "the huge monied men to whom money is the be-all and the end-all of existence," and, at least through his first administration, an equal disdain for the demagogue. He regarded it as a sign of his moderation that he found himself attacked by both sides. But was he right? This is a question that Roosevelt's letters do not answer.

Roosevelt struck up a lifelong friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge soon after graduating from Harvard, while working on the 1884 presidential campaign. Brands includes numerous letters to Lodge, but their correspondence is not the most revealing, partly because, for most of their political careers, the two were in close accord. Far more illuminating are the lengthy letters he penned to foreigners, mostly sympathetic Englishmen, like Cecil Spring Rice, Arthur H. Lee, and George Otto Trevelyan. In a series of letters to them, Roosevelt laid out his strategic vision for America and displayed impressive foresight in sizing up the territorial ambitions of her foreign rivals, especially Germany and Japan. At least in the beginning he was less perceptive about Russia, though he quickly got that looming danger in focus. The letters to Spring Rice also explored "the great racial questions," especially as they bore on the Japanese and on American immigration.

The correspondence also includes a number of letters on race relations between American blacks and whites, touching on the "lily white" electoral strategy of the Republican Party in the South, the fallout from T.R.'s White House dinner with Booker T. Washington, a savage lynching in Delaware, and Brownsville. A letter to Owen ("Dan") Wister criticizes his novel Lady Baltimore for siding too much with the South, though when it comes to the Negroes, Roosevelt "entirely" agrees with Wister that as a race they are "altogether inferior to the whites."

Readers interested in the theoretical basis of Roosevelt's progressivism will find his letter to Hugo Munsterberg in 1916 suggestive:

I do not for one moment believe that the Americanism of today should be a mere submission to the American ideals of the period of the Declaration of Independence. Such action would be not only to stand still, but to go back. American democracy, of course, must mean an opportunity for everyone to contribute his own ideas to the working out of the future. But I will go further than you have done. I have actively fought in favor of grafting on our social life, no less than our industrial life, many of the German ideals.

One is naturally led to wonder what Roosevelt, an accomplished amateur historian and man of letters in his own right, would have made of Edmund Morris's long-awaited study of Roosevelt's presidential years. A letter to the British historian George Trevelyan in the midst of T.R.'s presidency may provide some clue. There, he decried the growth of scientific history, which marshals fact upon fact, without any overarching theme. Roosevelt dismissed the current crop of historians as day-laborers, respectable enough for the work they do, but mischievous and absurd when they begin to think that their work renders the architect unnecessary. Great histories must not only be well-written and interesting but show judgment and thought.

Morris, whose biography of the young T.R., The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), was widely celebrated, is not a scientific historian but neither does he display much judgment and thought, especially when it comes to politics. Political topics tend to baffle, then bore, him. Indeed, in Dutch, his fictionalized biography of Ronald Reagan, Morris chose to write himself into the story just to keep up his interest. At any rate, in Theodore Rex, he sticks to the facts, piles and piles of them (some more dubious than others: are Slavs "swarthy"? are conservatives "coldly polite to their butlers"? what is a "fat Teutonic neck"?), but offers no comprehensive or even coherent reflection on this, the first modern activist presidency of the 20th century. To be sure, in 555 pages of narrative Morris covers the great domestic and foreign policy issues, but he does so in a style that is vastly annoying, with quick cuts from one incident to another, sometimes as many as two or three on a page, so that the thread of the story gets lost in the dizzying motion.

Morris seems much more intent with setting a mood than he does with analyzing the thought and actions of his subject. And on certain topics, his comments are confused and misleading. Take the idea of social Darwinism, which held an entire generation of Americans, including the early T.R., in its grip. Morris does not seem to be clear on the differences between social Darwinism and Lamarckian evolutionary theory, let alone the significance of these developments for American political life.

Even more fundamentally, morris fails to address the significance of Roosevelt's presidency. From his correspondence, it seems that Roosevelt understood his actions as an effort to strike a mean between the competing claims of the rich and the poor. At various points in the narrative, Morris himself seems to subscribe to this view. He tells us, for instance, that all his life T.R. was obsessed with balance. Yet finding the mean would seem to be the work of a mature statesman, so how does Morris square this account with Cecil Spring Rice's comment that Roosevelt was really about six-years-old, or Morris's own judgment that Roosevelt was morally inflexible when it came to his decisions on Panama and Brownsville? More generally, in what sense does the search for balance explain T.R.'s growing radicalization during his second term? Does Morris believe that T.R. in 1907 is still trying to achieve some kind of balance? If so, how does he explain Roosevelt's increasing reliance on "Constitution-defying executive orders" to push through policies that Congress opposed? Does he believe that T.R. arrogated power to himself in defiance of the Constitution in order to impose his own view of balance on the social classes?

Or does he, as seems more likely, quietly abandon the notion of balance as an explanatory principle? Such would seem to be the case in his chapter entitled "Moral Overstrain," where Morris describes Roosevelt's overheated Special Message to Congress in January 1908 as one "radical enough to excite the admiration of Upton Sinclair." Then there is Roosevelt's last Annual Message in December 1909, which Morris characterizes as "so imperious a call for enhanced executive authority that it amounted to a condemnation of the doctrine of checks and balances." (Curiously, for a study of T.R.'s presidential years, Morris never once mentions T.R.'s "stewardship" theory of executive power, let alone reflect on what it means for constitutional government.)

Morris recounts all this, and more, but leaves us at a loss for what to make of it. When, infrequently, he does venture an interpretation, as he does in praising Roosevelt's "deep and brilliant perception that justice is not a matter of eternal verities, but of constant case-by-case adaptation to the human prejudices of the judges," he not only distorts Roosevelt's own words (the social philosophy of the judges does not necessarily reduce to mere prejudice) but he reveals his own shallow understanding of politics. Readers seeking an intelligent analysis of T.R.'s presidency and its effect on our republican institutions will have to look elsewhere.

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