Teddy Roosevelt Comes Through Loud and Clear

I suspect the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt isn’t too pleased he’s squeezed between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln’s not the problem—Roosevelt regarded Lincoln with something close to idolatry—and George Washington is certainly not a problem. Roosevelt thought Washington was “one of the greatest men the world has ever known.” But Jefferson? “Thank Heaven I have never hesitated to criticize Jefferson…. In my estimation Jefferson’s influence upon the United States as a whole was very distinctly evil.” 

One thing you can say for TR, he said what he believed—and that comes through loud and clear in Daniel Ruddy’s splendid new book, Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States, which takes the reader on a sweep of American history from the founding to the First World War, all in Roosevelt’s own words, which Ruddy has mined from a wide variety of sources and arranged with terrific artfulness.

Some might find it instructive too, especially as a corrective to the champions of Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense, whom Roosevelt rightly dubs “the filthy little atheist,” or who respect William Jennings Bryan, “our own special prize idiot…a professional yodeler, a human trombone,” or who admire Woodrow Wilson, “a college professor with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people, unscrupulousness in handling machine leaders, and no real wisdom concerning internal and international affairs.” (TR makes Wilson sound rather like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) 

Some conservatives distrust Roosevelt—wrongly in my view (and I might add in the view of Russell Kirk, which might count for something more).

What was Roosevelt’s political creed? You can start with nationalism. He saw his nation clear-eyed and was well aware of America’s faults (faults that allowed men like Jefferson and Wilson to get elected). But he viewed the good guys in American history as the men who advanced America’s power and influence in the world.

TR believed in “righteousness,” a word he used frequently. He thought adultery and treason were one and the same. He had a deep sense of honor and morality, and it was this sense of righteousness that made him an enemy of machine politicians, yellow journalists, and the corruptions of mammon.

He believed in the “barbarian virtues” that were necessary to safeguard civilization. And he believed with Edmund Burke that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” 

On this last point, Roosevelt’s mind was deeply colored by his reading of the French Revolution. Socialism was his enemy; he called the socialism of Eugene V. Debs “a well-nigh unmixed evil,” and he believed that one of the “necessary tenets” of “ultra-socialism” was “free love,” which would lead, before it utterly destroyed society, to political despotism. He feared, however, that too many of the plutocrats of his day would blithely play the Bourbon monarchy to the mob, too stupid and narrow-minded to see that “reform is the antidote to Revolution.”

One test of a statesman is his predictive power—and Roosevelt was eerily prescient. He wrote that Russia “will sometime experience a red terror which will make the French Revolution pale.” He foresaw war with Japan, and even predicted where the Japanese would strike: “I have urged as strongly as I know how the immediate building of impregnable fortifications to protect Pearl Harbor and the adjacent region from any possible land attack. It seems to me that the determining factor in any war with Japan would be the control of the sea.”

He also had the honesty to reverse his judgments when he realized he was wrong. Long after he accused Jefferson Davis of being an “unhung traitor” on a par with Benedict Arnold, Roosevelt read more deeply into Davis’s life and did an about-face, praising the Confederate president as a man of “iron will and undaunted courage.”

TR definitely had his faults. His view of the Constitution and the Supreme Court seemed to be that the Constitution should say and Supreme Court justices should act exactly as he would like them to. It appears he didn’t understand the argument for states’ rights at all. And while he was a vigorous opponent of socialism, he feared its rising up from the mob and failed to see that it could be imposed from above, from the very strong federal government he advocated.

But whatever his opinions, he shared them with an admirable clarity, vigor, and lack of waffle, and he brought a sincere love and understanding of American history to everything he wrote.

Daniel Ruddy’s book offers a singular service. It’s delightfully well done, thoroughly sourced, and deserves to be widely read.
As TR himself would say: Bully!