History Vs. Podcast Episode 3: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Tragedy

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s July 16, 1918, and Theodore Roosevelt is at his Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, New York, dictating correspondence to his secretary when there’s a knock at the door. It’s a reporter, who hands Roosevelt a telegram that reads: “WATCH SAGAMORE HILL IN EVENT OF…” Then it ends, the rest of the message edited out to protect it from prying eyes.

The message might be censored, but Roosevelt knows what it means. World War I is raging, and all four of his sons signed up to fight. Ted and Archie are injured, and Kermit isn’t in a dangerous area yet. That leaves Quentin, a 20-year-old fighter pilot warding off German planes over France.

Though he won’t get further confirmation for a few days, Roosevelt knows what has happened. He knows that he’s never going to see Quentin, his youngest and favorite son, again.

Roosevelt asks the reporter not to say anything to his wife, Edith. He continues to dictate letters. Soon he will be told Quentin is missing in action following a fierce aerial battle. It’s reported that Quentin faced off against an ace German pilot before being shot down.

General John Pershing writes to Roosevelt that they are holding out hope that Quentin landed. But there will be no happy ending. Newspapers are reporting that Quentin has died, and, on July 20, Roosevelt receives official word from President Woodrow Wilson confirming the news. The German government prints a horrific photograph of Quentin’s body next to his downed plane.

Publicly, Roosevelt is stoic as ever. Privately, he heads to his stable and embraces Quentin’s pony, his arms around the animal’s neck. “Poor Quentyquee,” he says, whispering Quentin’s nickname. “Poor Quentyquee.” A friend and future biographer would say of Roosevelt that “the old exuberance, the boy in him has died.”

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR vs. Tragedy.

It’s not only that Roosevelt has lost a son, though that would be enough to send any parent into a state of anguish. It’s that Roosevelt has once again been confronted with unimaginable tragedy, the latest in a series of wounds that he’s endured throughout his life.

Those closest to him—his mother, his father, his first wife, his brother, and now his son—have all disappeared, most of them at a tragically early age. These moments reveal a great deal about Roosevelt’s character. They shaped his worldview. At times, they overwhelmed him. For TR, tragedy was a frequent visitor.

The first time it struck, he lost his idol. That was his father, Theodore Roosevelt Senior, who, when TR was a kid, implored his son not to be discouraged by his frequent asthma attacks and to pursue an active lifestyle. He loomed large in Roosevelt’s life as someone he aspired to be—stout, resourceful, determined. In Roosevelt’s words, his father was “the ideal man.” At Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt hung a portrait of his father that he could see whenever he sat down in his library.

Tyler Kuliberda: So Roosevelt said that his father was the best man he ever knew, and I certainly don't think that's just a son being kind to his father. I truly believe that he felt that way, that his father was the highest ideal that he could achieve. And I think a lot of his public service is aimed at righting the same wrongs, and righting societal ills that his father tried to right by philanthropy. Roosevelt attacks it from a different front, which is with government policy or government action.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, which is now a National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: He’s looking at his father's portrait constantly, you would imagine, as he's working, whether it's president, or before the presidency or after the presidency his father is always there. His father is a philanthropist. He's incredibly wealthy. They're from one of the wealthiest families in New York City. And Roosevelt's father is his greatest inspiration. So TR’s father would give away a lot of their wealth to help found museums, orphanages, hospitals in New York.

Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee, was born in 1831. Later, he pitched President Abraham Lincoln on a program where soldiers in the Civil War could send money back to their families.

Lincoln liked the idea, and Thee traveled around the front, signing soldiers up. His work was a kind gesture, but it wasn’t entirely borne out of generosity. There may have been a little guilt involved. Like many wealthy men of the era, he paid for a substitute to enter the Civil War so he wouldn’t have to enlist, which could have put him at war with his own wife. TR’s mother was from Roswell, Georgia, and her brothers were blockade runners—so things were probably a little tense at home.

Thee’s philanthropy wasn’t limited to war efforts. Often, he’d bring Roosevelt along on visits to orphanages and missions, a spark that likely led to his son’s desire to work in public service.

At the time, it wasn’t necessarily expected that someone wealthy would be so active with their family. That familial closeness was something Roosevelt would carry with him his entire life, spending as much time as he could with his relatives.

Kuliberda: This was in a time when if you were a wealthy family, if you were a wealthy man, you were not necessarily expected to be with your family other than at dinner every night, otherwise you were conducting business, or you were off doing whatever. Whereas, Roosevelt's father spent a lot of time with them, and they were actually considered an eccentric family, because of how much, you know, time they spent together, and I think how much they enjoyed each other’s company.

After a childhood spent traveling with his family and being privately tutored—because he was too sick for regular school—Roosevelt went off to Harvard in 1876. In his sophomore year, his father was nominated by President Rutherford B. Hayes as Collector of Customs in New York City. Hayes wanted to demonstrate he was committed to Civil Service Reform. The attention was taxing for Thee, who found himself a pawn between Republicans who backed Hayes and others who opposed reform. He was eventually rejected for the appointment.

The stress of the experience may have compounded his health issues. He had been struggling with pain and digestive problems brought on by an intestinal tumor, and it was progressing rapidly. Thee insisted that TR not be informed—he wanted his son to focus on his studies.

Eventually, Roosevelt was summoned back, and he rushed home from Harvard. But he was too late.

Thee died February 9, 1878 at the age of 46, just hours before TR made it home. Roosevelt was only a sophomore in college when his idol—the one his family called “Great Heart”—left his life forever.

On the day of his father’s funeral, Roosevelt wrote in his diary:

“I shall never forget these terrible three days; the hideous suspense of the ride on; the dull, inert sorrow, during which I felt as if I had been stunned, or as if part of my life had been taken away, and the two moments of sharp, bitter agony, when I kissed the dear dead face and realized that he would never again on this earth speak to me or greet me with his loving smile, and then when I heard the sound of the first clod dropping on the coffin holding the one I loved dearest on earth…I feel that if it were not for the certainty, that as he himself had so often said, ‘He is not dead but gone before,’ I should almost perish.”

Thee was, Roosevelt wrote, “Everything to me.”

Though Roosevelt would go on to experience the pain of personal loss several times over, never again would he articulate his grief in such plain language. It was as though his father’s passing stripped him of every bit of self-consciousness in his writing.

Those bare emotions continued pouring out. In his diary, Roosevelt struggled with a sense of guilt and a lack of self-worth. He was tortured by his helplessness, and the fact that he had been unable to assist or comfort his father in his last moments. He held his father in such regard that he felt unworthy of being his son.

“I often feel badly that such a wonderful man as Father should have had a son of so little worth as I am…How little use I am, or ever shall be in the world…I realize more and more every day that I am as much inferior to Father morally and mentally as physically.”

Roosevelt returned to Harvard, seemingly intent to prove himself wrong. He studied hard, exercised often, and spent summers rowing around Long Island Sound. He refused to allow his body or his mind to grow idle. Nature allowed him a way out of the darkness. He took steps forward.

Still, Roosevelt rarely acted without first comparing his plans to his father’s best judgment.

Kuliberda: He leaves his son this great sum of money, and Roosevelt uses that money to purchase the land around Sagamore Hill. He contracts with Lamb and Rich to build a Queen Anne style home, here. When he becomes president he realizes that he's about his father's age when his father had died, and he says, “I never weigh any heavy decision without considering what father would have done,” so his father is certainly his inspiration, it's his main role model. I don't think it's any coincidence why he hangs this portrait of him looking over him at his desk.

We’ll be right back.

 

Roosevelt’s mourning period for Thee lasted for months. Then, in October of 1878, just eight months following his father’s death, his life was unexpectedly brightened by the appearance of Alice Hathaway Lee.

The 17-year-old Alice was a cousin of one of Roosevelt’s Harvard friends, Richard Saltonstall. Roosevelt was immediately smitten with the strong, energetic Alice, who enjoyed physical activities like tennis and boating.

She seemed to blot out the gloom that had enveloped his life. He spent the next year trying to court her before she agreed to marry him. When they became engaged in January 1880, he exalted her.

“My sweet, pretty, pure queen, my laughing little love … how bewitchingly pretty she is! I can not help petting and caressing her all the time … I do not believe any man ever loved a woman more than I love her.”

She called him Teddy.

Kuliberda: I think he really fell for Alice. If you read letters between them, if you're an adult and you read them, and you're like, oh, boy, he fell really hard for her. He describes her as sunny, and after they're married he says that their relationship is too sacred for words, things like that, like really, really gushy, mushy stuff.

Roosevelt and Alice married on October 27, 1880, his 22nd birthday. While Roosevelt attended law school and worked on his book, The Naval War of 1812, Alice grew close to his mother, Mittie, whom the couple lived with in New York City, and got along well with his sisters, Anna—better known as Bamie or Bye—and Corrine. In 1881, Roosevelt was elected a state assemblyman. In 1883, Alice became pregnant with their first child. Soon, he hired an architectural firm to begin designing a house in Long Island for his expanding family.

Roosevelt intended to call the property Leeholm, after Alice’s maiden name.

Kuliberda: His intention with having a home here is to get out of New York City, like his family had before him. He’s going to raise his family here. He’s going to maintain a country home and be a country gentleman, and as well as somebody who lives in New York City. He buys the land after his father dies. He buys 155 acres. He starts buying in 1880, and then the house is built in 1884.

On February 13, 1884, Roosevelt was in Albany on business when he received a telegram with happy news. The day before, Alice had given birth to a healthy daughter, whom she had named Alice Lee Roosevelt.

But his joy was short-lived. Hours later, he received a second telegram. The telegram no longer exists, so we have no idea what it said, but we can assume from what happened next that it informed him that Alice was not in good health. She had Bright’s disease, a now-obsolete term for a condition that seriously damages the kidneys. Here’s Holly Frey, co-host of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast.

Frey: I have read various theories that in fact Teddy's wife, Alice, actually had kidney disease that was undiagnosed before her pregnancy, and that carrying a child exacerbated the problem and that's really what led to her passing so soon after Alice was born.

Alice was only barely conscious when he arrived. He held her in his arms through the early morning hours of February 14. As Alice tried to cling to life, Roosevelt was summoned to his mother’s room one floor below.

This time, he could at least be at her side, assuaging the guilt he had long felt over not being near his father’s. She passed away at 3 a.m.

At 2 p.m., Alice, just 22 years old, also died. She had been a mother for only two days.

Frey: He and his wife were living with his mother, so it was like his entire home life collapsed that day as he knew it. Which is really heartbreaking to think about. You know, essentially, to put it in kind of colloquial terms, like: two young kids who are starting their lives together and then it kind of all falls apart.

That same day, Roosevelt drew a large X in his diary and wrote “The light has gone out of my life.” He was just 25 years old.

Alice and Mittie were buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in a double funeral. Close friends of the family observed that Roosevelt appeared dazed and stunned, a state hardly typical of his pragmatic and focused disposition. Some even feared he might do something rash, taking total leave of his senses.

After the funeral, he wrote in his diary, “We spent three years of happiness greater and more unalloyed than [any] I have ever known fall to the lot of others … For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.”

After that he rarely spoke of Alice again—not of their love or their good times together. Rather than confront his grief, Roosevelt seemed capable only of erasing it: Love letters and photographs were destroyed.

He wouldn’t even mention her in his autobiography. And after this double tragedy, he would lock himself, and his feelings, down for the most part. According to Kathleen Dalton, “Escape and flight from pain provided familiar devices to protect himself from his own strong emotions and from unpleasant facts he wanted to avoid.”

On February 18, he returned to Albany to finish out his term as Assemblyman, where he worked with frenetic energy. He left his daughter in the care of his sister, Bamie.

Frey: And Alice, named for her mother, he couldn't even bear to say her name so they started calling her Baby Lee. And he allegedly forbid everyone he knew in his family and social circle from saying the name Alice for quite some time, because it was just so upsetting to him.

McCarthy: Baby Alice looked a whole lot like her mother, too, so that must have been really difficult for him.

Frey: That's like a constant reminder of your heartache. And it's interesting, people often talk about the fact that he wrote precious little about his wife in his life, even when he worked with a biographer to write his life story. It was just too much of an emotional burden for him, pretty much for the rest of his life.

We’ll be right back.

 

Roosevelt soon left New York for the Dakota Territory and a ranch, where the solitude of the outdoors, and the hard work of ranching, allowed him to dull the pain. Once again, loss had devastated him, and once again, Roosevelt had to rebuild himself.

Roosevelt once said that he never would have been president if not for his time in the Dakotas. To find out why, we headed out there ourselves, to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we met with Eileen Andes, the Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at the park.

Andes: It's the experience of going out there and enjoying the peace and quiet and solitude that Roosevelt needed when he decided to make that his home ranch. And he wrote about listening to the birds and hearing the wind in the cottonwood trees and listening to the sounds of the river.

Roosevelt came to the Dakotas to hunt bison in 1883, and, while he was there, invested in the Maltese Cross cattle ranch. After two tragedies and a bumpy last term as a New York State Assemblyman, he intended to permanently relocate there. But the Maltese Cross didn’t fit all of his needs.

Andes: It was along the river, which was a thoroughfare and people kept stopping by and he wanted solitude. So somebody had told him about the Elkhorn Ranch site. So he got on his horse and rode the river bottom. It's 35 miles along the river bottom to the site. He liked it and he had two of his friends from Maine come and build that cabin for him. And when you go out there, you'll see, it's down in the river bottom, almost completely surrounded by bluffs. And there was nobody out there. He had no neighbors, nobody to just drop by. And that's really what he was looking for and really what he needed. And it's a beautiful, quiet place.

Roosevelt bought the rights to the Elkhorn property for $400. Quite a steal.

The house is no longer standing. After Roosevelt sold it off in 1898, it was picked over by 1901. But you can still drive out to the site, which is an hour and 15 minutes from the park’s visitors center, so Tyler, a producer on this podcast, and I do just that.

At first the roads are paved, but eventually, we turn off onto a red gravel road. The scientific name for that red gravel is clinker, and it’s not long before our white SUV is coated in a fine layer of red dust, like we went to Mars.

McCarthy: We are in the middle of nowhere. Like, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, we turn off the gravel road onto another, deeply rutted road.

McCarthy: Put that seatbelt on. We are... Genuinely rough-riding right now. So... gotta make sure you're all buckled up!

Tyler Klang: That's right.

McCarthy: So the road is surrounded by all of these bluffs. And some of them are really green... And some of them have a lot of erosion, and there's all these, like, yellow and white and gray layers.

GPS Voice: You have arrived.

Well, not quite. There’s still a bit of a walk from the parking lot out to the site. The path is surrounded by grass on either side, punctuated by cottonwood and juniper trees and yellow flowers and salsify plants that look kind of like huge dandelions when the seeds are ready to be blown off. Occasionally birds, and the moo of a cow, can be heard over the din of cicadas. Also, there are a lot of insects.

Klang: Did a butterfly attack you?

McCarthy: A butterfly just flew directly into my face!

Finally, we make it to the ranch site, which is cordoned off with barbed wire.

Klang: Do you want to give us a general description of where we are and what the area is like?

McCarthy: Yeah, so we are standing in between a whole bunch of stones on the grass, that vaguely form a little rectangle. Although, I guess it would be pretty big for a house out here. But yeah, we're just in this sort of flat area, and on one side is the Little Missouri River, and on the other side are all these bluffs that are like yellow, and gray, and white, with just a little bit of vegetation, but there are a lot of trees surrounding the site. It is really very peaceful. I can see why he liked it.

What was once here was a house 30 feet long and 60 feet wide, with seven foot high walls. Nearby were stables, a shed for cattle, a chicken house, and a blacksmith shop. On one side is a tall bluff, and on the other, through the trees, is the Little Missouri River—which one expert told me is 200 yards away from where it was in Roosevelt’s time.

Here’s how Roosevelt himself described the site:

“My home ranch house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking chairs, (what true American does not enjoy a rocking chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the afterglow of the sunset.”

McCarthy: Do you know why he named it Elkhorn Ranch?

Klang: Why is that?

McCarthy: He came out here and he found the skulls of two elk locked together. So they had fought, and then gotten stuck, and then they died. So T.R. named it Elkhorn Ranch after that.

For years, TR bounced back and forth between his political obligations in New York and the solitude offered here. More than silence, though, was the need to stay busy. Ranch duties couldn’t wait for a grieving caretaker. Things needed to be done, and Roosevelt threw himself into his work, sometimes spending 13 hours a day or more in the saddle.

Andes: He said, "Black care seldom sits behind the rider who moves fast enough." Something like that. Black care, I think, was depression.

The actual quote is “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” so Eileen nailed it.

Elkhorn had everything he needed. Distractions. Nature. Things that Roosevelt had long since learned cured whatever dark thoughts might be crossing his mind.

McCarthy: So when he wasn't ranching, or like, working in the fields, or doing his cattle rancher stuff, he would sit on the veranda, which he loved, and then he would write for up to five hours a day. And then, obviously, he was also reading a lot while he was out here. But yeah, I can definitely see why he chose this site, because if the other house was on a route that was too busy, and people were always stopping by and you really wanted some solitude, I feel like this is the place, because it's not easy to get to. And his nearest neighbors in either direction were at least 10 miles away.

And after Alice died he didn't really talk about her ever again. But I’m pretty sure he was out here when he wrote one of the only things that he wrote about her after her death. And then he just kind of closed the door on that chapter of his life, because he was not a person who liked to dwell on sad or bad things, which is something that Edith would say later.

As Baby Lee grew up in Bamie’s home, Roosevelt found comfort with the woman who would become his second wife. Her name was Edith Kermit Carow. They were married in 1886. The following year, Baby Lee joined them in Sagamore Hill. In 1889, just before the birth of their second son, Kermit, Roosevelt moved to Washington after being appointed U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. Another son, Archie, was born in 1894. It would not be the only significant personal event in Roosevelt’s life that year.

Roosevelt would go on to have four boys and one more girl. For the most part, the siblings got along well. That was a marked departure from Roosevelt’s own relationship with his brother, Elliott.

Born in 1860, Elliott was the black sheep of the Roosevelt clan, and he often tried TR’s patience. Elliott’s primary problem was the bottle. He drank heavily and often, trying to soothe the lingering pain of a serious accident. While he would sometimes attempt to curb his addiction at treatment centers, it never stuck.

All of this drove his straight-laced brother crazy, and worse than that, it threatened major scandal when Elliott got Katy Mann, his wife’s maid, pregnant in 1890.

Here’s Roosevelt family biographer William Mann, author of The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family.

Mann: He was in many ways Theodore's polar opposite. Where Theodore was all about the rules of society and the expectations of society and certainly of his class, Elliott broke all of those rules. They had a lot in common as well. I mean, they grew up together. They were close as boys. They both were great sportsmen, they both loved to hunt, they both had a love of nature, but their personalities were very, very different.

Roosevelt thought Elliott was a burden not only to the Roosevelt family as a whole but to his own wife, Anna, and their three children—one of whom was future four-term first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who later became the American spokesperson for the United Nations.

Roosevelt attempted to become his brother’s conservator to curb his reckless spending and scandalous behavior. It was an interesting role reversal. As children, it was Elliott who looked out for his older brother.

Mann: The interesting thing about their relationship when they were children is they were both at different times caretakers for each other, and I think that defines the rest of their time together, or their adult life as well. Because when Theodore was young, of course he was very famously asthmatic and very frail and fragile. The family kept him pampered and sheltered and it was expected that the younger brother would take care of the older brother. So when they were traveling, or even just around the house, Elliott looked out for Theodore, helped him along, and looked to his parents for affirmation for that. They were always, you know, grateful that Elliott took such good care of Theodore.

As Roosevelt built his body and mind, he needed Elliott less and less. Soon, he would achieve goals that were out of Elliott’s reach. Traveling in opposite directions, the brothers grew apart.

Mann: I think the first break comes when Theodore seriously says, "I want to get ahead. I want to be president of the United States." Whether he articulated that particular thought himself or if he simply said, "I want to reach for elected office," that's the moment when Elliott becomes a problem and a problem that had to be solved.

When Elliott tried putting his life together, Roosevelt did not encourage him or pat him on the back. After Elliott checked himself into a sanitarium in Europe, Anna asked Roosevelt to write Elliott a letter praising him. But TR would not do it.

To Roosevelt, his brother’s wayward behavior would only cause him harm if he managed to continue his ascendancy in politics. He believed the best way to maintain his reputation in the face of his brother’s mistakes was to make sure he could demonstrate he had tried helping Elliott. Unfortunately, his dogmatic approach may not have been in Elliott’s best interests.

Mann: It's heartbreaking when you look back because this was a man who was not drinking at the time, but they needed to institutionalize him for drunkenness. Bye sails to France and moves in to their household and essentially watches him like an eagle eye and is constantly writing back to Theodore reporting on his every move. And it's stressing the whole family out, it's stressing Elliott's wife and his children, and Elliott does, because of this, he does begin to drink a few times and they catch him. "Aha, we knew it. We knew you were going to drink too much." And eventually they do get him away from his family, they do get his wife's agreement, and he's institutionalized and it's all to be able to say, you know, should this scandal break, "Well, look, we did the right thing. We got him way from his family. He was dissolute, he was depraved. We took him away from his children because that's the right thing to do." You know, you read Eleanor Roosevelt's memoirs and it's clear she never thought that was the right thing to do because she carried a scar for the rest of her life of losing her father.

Tragedy soon found Elliott. Anna died of diphtheria in 1892. One of Elliott’s sons, Elliott Junior, succumbed to the same illness the following year. These deaths unraveled what was left of Elliott.

On August 13, 1894, TR got a telegram—by this point, a method of communication he must have grown to dread—notifying him that Elliott was in New York and in poor health. He shunned any attempts by his family to comfort him. Roosevelt honored his wishes to be left alone, and the next day, Elliott tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window. He survived, but a seizure followed. Elliott Roosevelt was dead at the age of 34.

Roosevelt had been able to compartmentalize Elliott’s problems by keeping his distance. But when he saw Elliott’s body, his coping method was of no use. He wept openly. His sister Corinne said that “Theodore was more overcome than I have ever seen him, and cried like a little child for a long time.”

Mann: We don't actually have any specific thoughts about how he felt about that, except Corinne's observation that he cried like a baby when he stood over his brother's corpse. And I just have to feel that in those tears, there was every, every emotion. There was grief, there was empathy, there was guilt, perhaps even, because the way Corinne describes it, it was a very cathartic cry. And he was a good man. Theodore Roosevelt was a good man in his heart. He wanted to do the right thing even though he was often so constrained by what was supposed to be done by, you know, society. But I have to believe that in that moment he felt all of those emotions about his brother. You know, I don't think he would ever have said to himself even, you know, "What I did was wrong," or, "I could have done something differently." I don't think he could ever bring himself to think of that.

Elliott, Roosevelt wrote, was “like a stricken, hunted creature” who had been pursued by “terrible demons.” Any thoughts of Elliott as a stain on his reputation seemed to evaporate. In death, Roosevelt saw him only as a lost soul. Though he was later exhumed and laid to rest next to Anna in the Hall family mausoleum at St. Paul’s Church in Tivoli, New York, Roosevelt initially insisted Elliott be buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the site of the Roosevelt family plot, where he remained for two years. There, TR wrote, Elliott could be next to those who “are associated only with his sweet innocent youth.”

The empty space left by his parents, by Alice, and by Elliott could never be filled, but by the 1910s, Roosevelt had a number of important people in his life to occupy his time and his mind. There was Edith and his six children. For a time, life was relatively quiet—as quiet as TR’s life could be, anyway.

Then came America’s entry into World War I, which TR had lobbied for. He’d wanted to create a volunteer division, but president Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t allow it. Roosevelt’s sons so revered their father that they felt compelled to take up arms in his stead. Archie Roosevelt once told a historian that, “We all knew how badly Dad wanted to go, so we went for him. He always told us to lead meant to serve.”

World War I was a conflict waged with an efficient brutality. Grenades, heavy ammunition, planes, and trenches all conspired to wound an estimated 21 million soldiers. Some came back home with devastating injuries that required the use of plaster masks to hide facial disfigurements. Others took round after round of machine-gun fire. It was this unforgiving environment that the Roosevelt boys found themselves in.

Archie and Ted sailed to France. Archie was seriously wounded in the knee and arm by shell fragments. Later, Ted would suffer a leg wound. But it was Quentin who paid the ultimate price, shot down by enemy fire.

“To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father. And at the same time I would not have cared for my boys and they would not have cared for me if our relations had not been just along that line.”

Here’s Tyler Kuliberda.

Kuliberda: He doesn't talk about it, about his feelings about it publicly. He maintains everything that he had said before the war about war and about his sons being involved in it. Quentin is, you know, killed in battle, and Roosevelt calls that riding the crest of life. He thinks it's kind of the highest achievement you can have as a person, sacrificing yourself in effort of war.

Roosevelt clung to something with Quentin’s death. It was the nobility of sacrifice, a life exchanged for the greater good. Writing to King George V in response to his and the Queen’s condolences, TR said that his sons had “sailed from our shores over a year ago; their mother and I knew their temper and quality; and we did not expect to see all of them come back.”

But he could also waver. Writing to Kermit’s wife, Belle Willard Roosevelt, he lamented the pain felt by Quentin’s fiancée, Flora.

“It is no use pretending that Quentin’s death is not very terrible … It is useless for me to pretend that it is not very bitter to see that good, gallant, tender-hearted boy, leave life at its crest, when it held Flora, and such happiness, and certainly an honorable and perhaps a distinguished career.”

Kuliberda: Edith has a nice quote about the boys and their service in war. She says that you cannot raise boys to be eagles and then expect them to act like sparrows. So, losing Quentin for Roosevelt, I imagine that there was a lot of questioning of his attitude towards war, about whether or not he pressed his sons into service, and if that was a correct thing to do for all of them. We only know that he continued to say that Quentin was a valiant soldier, and that it was a higher purpose that he sacrificed himself for.

Quentin’s grave in France became a shrine that was visited by many soldiers. The Americans replaced a German cross marking the grave, and the French built a fence around it. The Roosevelts decided to leave his body there, where he had fallen in battle and where respect was being paid.

Roosevelt spent time with Edith in Dark Harbor, Maine, rowing out onto the lake to commune with nature. It was his most enduring coping mechanism. But he was older now, a man of almost 60, and the strain and toil of losing a loved one wore on his constitution. He died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, of a pulmonary embolism.

Kuliberda: Some historians have posited that six months after Quentin dies Roosevelt himself dies, so some people have put it that he had died of a broken heart in addition to physical ailments. And perhaps there's something to that. Perhaps Roosevelt couldn't continue to go on living in a world where maybe his entire view of war, which was a big part of his outlook and his world view, maybe had changed.

Prior to his death, supporters called for Roosevelt to run for president once more. Owing to his advancing age and the loss of Quentin, the man who was previously ready to run back into battle could not fathom taking on any more responsibility. “Since Quentin’s death, the world seems to have shut down upon me,” he wrote.

Four days. Four telegrams, for five tragedies. Each loss fundamentally altered how Theodore Roosevelt looked at the world—and fundamentally altered him. It’s difficult to say if TR truly conquered tragedy. You don’t leave losses like these behind—they become a part of you. What we know is that it wounded him, sometimes froze him. But it did not overcome him.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen and researched by me, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo. Fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer and Tyler Klang. Joe Weigand voiced TR in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Tyler Kuliberda, Holly Frey, Eileen Andes, William Mann, and North Dakota Tourism.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

History Vs. Episode 11: History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

The carvers stand on the scaffolding hundreds of feet high, clad in overalls and face masks, small pneumatic hammers in hand. The clatter of drills and granite dust fills the air, as they have almost every day of construction on Mount Rushmore. For years, these men have worked to sculpt four presidential faces out of the mountain, and now, they’re about to begin finishing work on the massive sculpture’s final face.

Work on the face had begun in 1937, and it had been dedicated with much fanfare—including a fireworks show—two years later, before it was even close to finished.

To get to this point, men called pointers had marked where and how deep to drill; powder monkeys—or workers in charge of the dynamite—had dangled from the top of the mountain and carefully placed small charges to precisely blast away rough exterior rock to reveal white, sparkling granite. Drillers using air-powered jackhammers had further removed stone to get to the carving surface; and carvers—many of whom had worked their way up [PDF] from other jobs on the mountain—had created polka dot-esque honeycomb grids on the stone, using a hammer and chisel to remove extra granite. Throughout the process, the features on the 60-foot-tall face had slowly, slowly emerged and gained definition: Two 11-foot-wide eyes. A 20-foot-tall nose. A massive mustache. And the mere suggestion of glasses across the bridge of the nose and the upper cheeks, an illusion which will look like full frames to the spectators below.

It's now time for what sculptors call fine finishing. The carvers switch on their pneumatic hammers, also known as “bumpers.” Each is equipped with four bits of steel that clatter against the rock, removing or “bumping” it a fraction of an inch at a time. Cautiously, they apply the hammers to the stone, buffing the honeycomb grid off of Theodore Roosevelt’s massive chin.

We know that TR was an adventurer, a man who fought corruption and advocated for a Square Deal for all, the sporting hunter who lent his name to the Teddy Bear, a person who cared deeply about conserving nature for the next generation, and, yeah, the guy in the Night at the Museum movies and on Mount Rushmore. But there is so much more to Roosevelt’s legacy.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and for this, the final episode of our first season, we’re taking a look back TR’s legacy. This episode is History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt.

Mount Rushmore is probably one of the things people think of first when they think about Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. The mountain—named for New York lawyer Charles Rushmore in the 1880s—is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and I head there on a humid August day with the goal of talking to some other visitors about Theodore Roosevelt, his legacy, and why they think he’s on the mountain. I don’t know about you, but I hate striking up a conversation with strangers, so I spend a fair amount of time procrastinating. It rains, and then it hails, and in the safety of the gift shop, I contemplate buying some TR socks that say “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and also giving up on this whole interviewing random people thing.

But when I head back outside, some interview subjects find me. They’re the Popes—parents Ben and Sally, and kids Harry and Alice—and they’re from London. They came here in part because Alice saw Mount Rushmore on an episode of Phineas and Ferb. Harry’s favorite president on the mountain is Washington. But Alice prefers Roosevelt, because he was in Night at the Museum.

Erin McCarthy: So what else do you know about him besides his exploits in Night at the Museum?

Alice: He liked to ride horses and he was a cool guy.

Ben: We wanted to bring them here anyway, but it was a particular wish of Alice's because she'd grown up seeing that image on TV.

That’s Ben, Harry and Alice’s dad.

McCarthy: If you had to guess why he was up on the mountain today, why he was chosen, what would you say?

Here’s Harry.

Harry: He probably has made a big commitment to the country and did something that people wanted to remember.

Next I chat with Lane Johnson, who hails from Texas. Lane knows all about TR’s trip to the Amazon, so his response when I ask why TR is on the mountain makes sense:

Johnson: I would say because of his sense of adventure.

Sharon Wright from Wisconsin says a lot has changed since the first time she came here.

McCarthy: What was it like back then?

Wright: Very quiet and very serene.

McCarthy: What can you tell me about TR?

Wright: Well, he was kind of the go-getter for the national park system. And he really was one to help preserve the outdoors for everybody, to keep it from being, everything being commercialized. Although I'd say this is getting pretty commercialized. It's free to come here, but you have to pay to park, so it's not really free. You used to be able to come here and enjoy it without having to pay to park.

Finally, I chat with Aretha Wilson from Ohio. Of the presidents up on the mountain, she says Roosevelt is her favorite.

Wilson: Roosevelt respects his supporters no matter how big or small. So that's a good thing.

We’re all standing here today thanks to South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, who wanted to create a tourist destination in the Black Hills so more people would come to South Dakota. Initially, he wanted to carve famous figures from the history of the West into granite spires located nearby, but the artist chosen to create the monument, Gutzon Borglum, had completely different location, and vision, in mind: the presidents.

When it came down to which presidents to put on the mountain, most were no-brainers: Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and had expanded the country through the Louisiana Purchase. Washington was the father of the country and allowed Jefferson’s ideas to become a reality. Lincoln kept the country together in a time of great strife.

But TR? Well, TR was controversial. Here’s Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and public affairs at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

McGee-Ballinger: The whole carving process, that idea, begins in 1925. Well, Roosevelt had died in 1919, so most people alive at that point, in 1925, they knew him. They knew of his politics, they knew of his presidencies, and there were a lot of people that didn't like him, so he was controversial. But Borglum did like him, and it was Borglum's work of art, and he made the final decision, “Theodore Roosevelt will go up there, and he'll go up there because of the Panama Canal.” Today, people look at it and say, “Well, of course Theodore Roosevelt’s up there. The conservation president,” but that's not what Borglum was thinking.

Borglum also knew TR personally—he had campaigned for the Bull Moose when he ran for president in 1912.

Mount Rushmore consists of a fine-grained granite called the Harney Peak granite. The fine grain means the rock holds together well when you carve it, but it also makes it harder to carve. On the plus side, that means it takes awhile to erode.

McGee-Ballinger: The erosion rate of the Harney granite is an inch every 10,000 years. This is tough rock.

In other words, people are going to be staring at those faces on the mountain for a long time.

Creating Mount Rushmore was not easy work; finishing the sculpture took 14 years, and Borglum died before it was completed. His son, Lincoln, took over for him. TR’s face was the last one finished, in 1941. According to Rex Alan Smith in his book The Carving of Mount Rushmore, at its dedication in 1939, 12,000 people attended—the largest attendance of any of the face dedications. Today, the memorial gets more than 2 million visitors annually.

Here’s one funny thing about TR being on Mount Rushmore: He probably would have hated it.

Michael Cullinane: He didn't want any monument of him, like a statue of him, or him on horseback. He hated those kind[s] of monuments. He wanted monuments to be either utilitarian in nature, like naming a building after him, or to be artistic.

That’s Michael Cullinane, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Roehampton in London and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon. Cullinane is a presidential historian and a diplomatic historian, and he’s spent the last 10 years looking into TR’s legacy, as well as his accomplishments and foreign policies.

McCarthy: What's the strangest place you've seen the Roosevelt legacy sort of manifest in pop culture?

Cullinane: You know, he shows up in the weirdest places. Miley Cyrus has got a tattoo on her arm of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt.

Miley’s tattoo aside, or maybe included, Cullinane describes Roosevelt’s legacy over the last 100 years since his death as a “rollercoaster.”

Cullinane: When he died in 1919, the first American red scare is going on and communism is, you know, is a ... Communists are a boogie man and Roosevelt is very much seen as this patriotic American, and also a conservationist and a progressive and all those things as well, but it's almost like he's a saint after he dies.

That all changed when historian Henry Pringle published his biography of TR in 1931. Cullinane describes Pringle’s book as a “purposeful revision” of Roosevelt that downgraded him from a saint and helped inaugurate what has been called the ‘Crazy Teddy’ period. That image of Roosevelt as a juvenile guy who made impulsive decisions lasted until the 1960s.

Cullinane: There's a reappraisal, but it never really goes back to the saintly version or back to that Crazy Teddy version. Instead, what we get is the much more moderate version, a nuanced man with his faults, you know, warts and all, as some people say, and I think, actually, that's been good for the TR brand over the last few years because it means he's this really human character that people can relate to. So he's not perfect, and he's not a demon. He's something in between, which I think most of us are.

TR’s family was extremely protective of his legacy—especially Edith.

Cullinane: I've always referred to Edith Roosevelt as a gatekeeper of TR's legacy because she was able to pass over documents to historians; she was able to restrict other writers from using those documents. In fact, there's some famous incidences in terms of copyright law in which Edith tried to stop people that had letters that Roosevelt wrote to them, she tried to stop having those published. And so really she acts as the gatekeeper for his memory and his legacy, and throughout her life, until she died in the late '40s, she ... That's her role and she really helps the memorial association's work towards the image that she wants to see promoted.

TR’s legacy was so complicated that even his own family couldn’t agree on exactly what it was. The Hyde Park Roosevelts—a.k.a. Franklin and, by marriage, Eleanor—and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts—Alice, Ted Jr., etc.—famously butted heads over it.

Cullinane: It’s because at that point, after TR dies, the legacy becomes the next generation’s, so they get to shape the legacy of TR, and Alice and Ted are pushing in one direction, and Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor, who, of course, marries Franklin, are pushing in an opposite direction, and that plays out really up until the 1960s, when Eleanor and Franklin and Ted are dead. Alice lives on until the 1980s but by that stage, Theodore Roosevelt had kind of become a bipartisan figure. Maybe in part because Franklin Roosevelt promoted him as a … as the Square Deal as being the forerunner to the New Deal.

When we talk about TR’s legacy, we often talk about how he was the first modern president. As Kathleen Dalton wrote in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He is heralded as the architect of the modern presidency, as a world leader who boldly reshaped the office to meet the needs of the new century and redefined America’s place in the world.” When Roosevelt became president, technology was changing rapidly, and so was life for everyday Americans, thanks to industrialization. Here’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: The country is changed by the time Roosevelt's president. It's the 20th century. Roosevelt becomes president in 1901, and all of a sudden you have the United States operating on a world scale, where it previously had been pretty isolationist. Now you have territories in the Pacific. You'd fought a war with the Spanish in Cuba. Roosevelt begins his presidency and the United States is still occupying the Philippines. They're building the Panama Canal during his presidency. You have adjustments in technology. So the presidency all of a sudden is kind of a full-time job. You can't have a break for the summertime. He was called to be a modern president because of these changes in technology and changes in policy, changes of the United States policy on the world stage. The presidency has changed, and Roosevelt being a young man, I think was fit for things to rapidly change during his presidency.

In my opinion, it was also Roosevelt’s image control that made him a decidedly modern president. When he got into politics, he started writing “posterity letters” for historians to study, and he was doing it for the ‘gram, as the kids say, long before social media was a thing.

To cultivate his desired cowboy image, for example, he had a photo snapped of himself in a buckskin suit that he’d had made for his time in the Dakotas, but someone who knew him later commented that it “was indisputable evidence of the rank tenderfoot.” Also, though the photo appeared to have been taken in a forest, it was actually taken in a studio in New York. When he pursued boat thieves down the Little Missouri River, TR made sure to bring a camera with him—and to get a photo of himself watching over the bandits. But it was a re-enactment. And according to some, the men in the picture weren’t even the actual thieves.

But there were also sides to Roosevelt that he wouldn’t let the public see—like how he wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed in his tennis outfit. Just one more example of his image control.

For Cullinane, it was Roosevelt’s use of the bully pulpit as a PR tool that made him the first modern president.

Cullinane: I think Roosevelt's ability to speak to the average voter and to get across a version of policy that he wants to see take shape, it's really his administration that’s the first to do that. He is a public relations dynamo.

He points to the war in the Philippines as an example. Roosevelt declared the war over in 1902 … but it wasn’t over.

Cullinane: I mean, the war goes on really until 1915, but officially the war is ended in 1902. And that, in a public relations perspective, is a huge move. The role of president as chief promoter is the one that Roosevelt really takes on and makes ... That's what makes the big change in office.

Many of TR’s actions during his tenure fundamentally changed the office of the president. Like, say, his decision to get things done via executive order. He’d make the call, and then leave Congress to debate it.

Cullinane: He didn't act impulsively. He thought things through very carefully. I think he had very strong convictions and he acted very assertively. Maybe that's the word that I would choose to use, that he is incredibly assertive as a president and I think every president since him, maybe with the exception of the Republican presidents in the 1920s, but besides those three presidents, more often than not, presidents have acted assertively, and they've said that it's their prerogative to act that way, and I think Roosevelt paved the way for the presidency to be that kind of an instrument of power.

TR’s view that he could do anything not expressly forbidden by the Constitution or by law was also a game-changer for the presidency.

Cullinane: The presidency has sort of gone that way of TR's constitutional view in that the president, if there are non-enumerated powers, the president can still execute them. I mean, things like going to war is a really good example. When he sent the warship to Panama to support the Panamanian revolution, he was effectively sending American troops into a war zone to support a revolution and since then, that's happened quite a bit.

According to Cullinane, TR's decision to intervene internationally has been one of the most lasting legacies of his administration. Many other presidents have followed suit.

Cullinane: Woodrow Wilson did this a lot but you can think about other interventions later on, from, say, Vietnam to Afghanistan, where the United States' president has deployed troops and then Congress has had to respond, and Congress has tried to rein in presidential power in a number of different realms but perhaps most in war powers, and they even passed a War Powers Resolution in the '70s to restrict the amount of time that the president can send troops abroad, but that's not really been an effective measure to stop the president.

Historians today are still debating about some of TR’s actions on the international stage, including those he took to speed up the Panama Canal.

Cullinane: So the Panama Canal and how you feel about the Panama Canal often has a very clear correlation with how you think about American power more generally and American imperialism and empire. If you view Roosevelt's decision to make Panama or to force Panama to have this revolution and then take the canal, then you see American power as something that's a benevolent force in the world, but if you see that as an overstretch of American power, then you probably think that Roosevelt was acting beyond, you know, the norms and the regulations of the constitution and of what America is supposed to be. I think actually the Panama decision strikes an ongoing paradox in American history, and particularly about American foreign relations, which is that either the United States is to act as an example for the world, or the United States is to actively set the example for the world.

In other words: Should America stand passively as an example, and hope others follow suit? Or should America be more proactive?

Cullinane: I think all foreign policies wind up putting the United States in one of those two roles and Roosevelt very much, very much saw the United States as acting, you know, not just as an example but setting the example for the world, and so that's why he acts the way he does with Panama. It's one of those things that successive generations of politicians have continued to debate. It's been a flash point and it's a really good case study to think about the differences that we have in our foreign policies.

Some of TR’s other actions on the global stage perhaps sent the message they meant to at the time, but didn’t necessarily change the course of history. I’m talking about TR’s display of American naval power, the Great White Fleet.

Cullinane: It was showing off and it was an opportunity to show the world that there is this emerging naval force, and there's no question that after 1909, the United States as a naval force will only grow in stature from that point on. It's a two-ocean naval force. There's only one other country in the world that's a two-ocean naval force and that's Britain, you know, famed at this time for ruling the waves. So this was a big pronouncement on the world's stage, but did it really have any effect? Did it stop Japan, for example, from taking over colonies in the Pacific and eventually becoming one of the Axis powers in World War II? I don't think so. It certainly made the Japanese more deft at how they negotiate. It meant that foreign relations with Britain, say, for example, in the Pacific, became more important. But Roosevelt's fleet didn't actually change the balance of power in the Pacific.

We’ll be right back.

 

I came into this podcast wanting to show Roosevelt not as a caricature but as a real person. And no discussion of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy would be complete without talking about his views on race, which we’ve touched on a bit in other episodes.

Cullinane: Well, TR's views on race, I have to say, are probably one of the most interesting bits about him. I don't think we've given enough airtime to his views on race. I think we're living in a kind of soundbite culture where if you can't get your view across very quickly, then, you know, no one understands it, or they don't want to understand it, you know? And I think TR's views on race were really quite complicated and they're presented as, effectively, white supremacy … or just plain racist, I guess, but there's so much more to it than that.

Cullinane is right. I’ve read a bunch of books about TR for this podcast, and have read that his views of race were “complicated,” that he had a “divided heart on matters of race,” and that when it came to African Americans, his attitude was “enlightened.” Many books seem to only touch on the subject, perhaps because TR’s thoughts on race are incredibly complex.

So, with that said, we won’t be able to unpack all of TR’s views on race here. If, after you listen to this, you’re interesting in learning more, I’d recommend picking up Thomas Dyer’s book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race.

In previous episodes, we’ve discussed how TR’s thoughts on race impacted how he dealt with other nations. So in this discussion, we’ll be focusing mostly on his attitudes toward African Americans and Native Americans.

But before we get into TR specifically, it’s important to put his views into context. We all know that TR was a curious guy who thought of himself as a scientist, so what were the quote-unquote “scientific views” of race at the time? To find out, I called Dr. Justene Hill Edwards, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia whose focus is on African-American history, the history of slavery, and the history of capitalism.

Edwards: There were scientists who were then trying to find a scientific research-based rationale for segregation and for white racial superiority. Really, in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, there was a rise in racial science, in particular, eugenics, so that it kind of provided a more kind of scientific rationale for ideas of white racial purity and why that should be the standard and the ideal. And so it was really finding a scientific way to explain why white superiority was good and why it should be a goal in social policymaking.

McCarthy: Why would white people be looking for a scientific reason to prove that they were superior?

Edwards: Well, I mean, you're talking about a time, especially in the U.S., post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction, where, in particular, African Americans are working to really gain their civil rights. You have the increase of immigration from places like Japan, and China too, a little bit. You have this kind of increase in kind of racial and ethnic diversity that begins to occur in this period. And so … interestingly, it's not just in this period where you have kind of white Americans, in many ways publicly struggling with the fear and the idea that they're kind of losing ground to racial and ethnic minorities.

Dyer writes that TR “grew up in an atmosphere of Victorian privilege, was bombarded from early childhood with ideas that stressed the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of non-whites.” And his privilege undoubtedly shaped his views of race.

Edwards: Now interestingly enough, because he was born in New York City, because he was born in the North and not in the South like in South Carolina or Georgia, he probably held what we would consider more... or what his contemporaries would probably consider more progressive thoughts about race. Let's not kind of conflate his progressivism with ideas of … that he was in favor of racial equality because surely he was not.

Growing up, TR’s mother had told him stories about her childhood in the South, which painted slaves as childish dependents and ignored the horrors of slavery; the tales must have had some influence on his views. He also read a lot: Dyer writes that Roosevelt “gloried in Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf, which celebrated the Nordic tradition, a key ingredient in 19th-century theories of white supremacy” and that he was also influenced by the Teutonic myth Nibelungenlied, which he read during his time living with a German family when he was a teenager. (Dyer says that its influence can clearly be seen in Roosevelt’s Winning of the West.)

Mayne Reid’s books and the magazine Our Young Folks were among TR’s favorites things to read, and they contained ugly racial stereotypes about Native Americans and African Americans.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was also an influence, as were some of Roosevelt’s professors at Harvard. TR continued to read voraciously after his college career, and also corresponded with a number of scientists of his era. According to Dyer, you can see all of these influences in TR’s views and writings about race, which he viewed both in terms of nationality and in terms skin color.

Roosevelt believed that the white, English-speaking race was the most advanced race. But he was also a proponent of neo-Lamarckianism. The idea came from a French scientist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who predated Darwin and believed that certain traits could be cultivated and passed to later generations.

Edwards: While Darwin, for example, thought about a natural evolution, Lamarck's idea more had to do with the idea that species could in some way, choose which traits to pass along to their offspring.

This doesn’t mean that one day you decide you want your future child to be a genius and then bam—they’re a genius. There are differences between Lamarckian and Neo-Lamarckian belief, but a Neo-Lamarckian lecture from the 1890s discusses the idea. A Darwinist would look at the children of pianists and say that they might inherit dexterity or a good ear, but they won’t inherit piano skills. They’ll need to learn the piano the same way their parents did.

A Neo-Lamarckian would counter that the child must inherit piano skills, otherwise humanity would have the same level of piano skills forever. As an example, they say that gymnasts have been getting steadily better. This is the result, according to the lecture, of “lifelong training of the children of acrobats and of their children.” The improvement in gymnastics therefore is “largely due to the transmission of the qualities directly acquired by training.”

This kind of thinking, according to Edwards, allowed people to feel more in control of their destinies, as opposed to Darwinism, where characteristics are hardwired into your DNA, changing only by mutation. And it wasn’t just white people of that time who held these ideas about determinism.

Edwards: The famed thinker, W. E. B. Du Bois, had this idea, not in a scientific way but in a social way, of the Talented Tenth, that the top 10 percent of African Americans, in terms of intelligence, would lead the race out of kind of the misery of being black Americans. This idea has permutations.

Part of Roosevelt’s neo-Lamarkianism was the concept of equipotentiality. Historian Kathleen Dalton writes that “Lamarckians ... tended to accept the idea that all human capacity, including racial potential, was plastic and could be changed.” Here’s Michael Cullinane again:

Cullinane: And really what that means is that Roosevelt believed that within a generation, we could remake ourselves. Not completely, say, but that we could effectively learn from the mistakes of past generations, and that's … that’s remarkable because it means that we are not just beholden to reproduction in order to progress civilization or progress, you know, our gene pool, but that, actually, we can learn from history, which, of course, he was a student of history, we can learn from history and make changes within a generation that have an impact upon ourselves and, in a wider sense, civilization. So that, to me, always struck me as an anti-racist idea, because in its essence, it means that anyone, regardless of skin color or anything really, where you were born or who you were born to, can reach the heights that TR saw as the heights of civilization and the heights of personal greatness. You know, the reality is, though, is that he didn't believe that a lot of different races would get there. He does talk about African Americans as being far behind white Anglo-Saxons, or English-speaking peoples, white English-speaking peoples. There's a capacity in his thinking for equality, but it doesn't always present itself in how he views the world.

We’ve covered Roosevelt’s theory of the “stages of development” before, but here’s a quick refresher: TR believed that all races, nationalities, and civilizations went through certain stages. The lowest stage was savagism, which was marked by chaos; next, barbarism, during which, in Dyer’s words, “military ‘virtues’ were developed.” Then came “social efficiency,” which blended military virtues with a love of order. It was followed by a stage, where, Dyer writes, “the great ‘virile virtues’ diminished and were replaced by love of ease, softness, willful sterility … and too much stress upon material possessions.” And then, finally, the stage of decadence, or death.

This thinking informed his views on race, both at home and abroad. Edwards calls TR’s experience fighting in the Spanish-American war “transformative.” After that war, of course, the U.S. was ceded Guam and Puerto Rico, and got sovereignty of the Philippines.

Edwards: With his role in the Spanish-American War and then his ascendancy as president, he presided over the not … just the expansion of kind of U.S. ideas of democracy and military presence, but it reinforced the idea that the native inhabitants of these new territories were somehow racially inferior and not fully prepared to participate in the democratic project. And this kind of relates to ideas of kind of the stages of development and how he thought about international diplomacy. He believed that certain people in certain nations were not prepared to participate in democracy, were not socially and culturally prepared for that type of citizenship and participation.

According to Dyer, Roosevelt believed that certain members of other races had evolved to the point where they could participate, even if their races as a whole hadn’t gotten there yet. Dyer writes that what Roosevelt said in public and in private suggests that he believed that “the black was largely incapable of assuming the role of citizen,” and that that opinion grew stronger after his presidency. “Roosevelt remained convinced that blacks would become full citizens only very slowly,” Dyer writes. “In the meantime, full citizenship would go only to those ‘good,’ privileged blacks like Booker T. Washington, William Crum, and Minnie Cox.”

Roosevelt did take a stand when it came to the appointments of African Americans Minnie Cox and William Crum. Cox was a college-educated black woman who had been appointed to a postmaster position in Indianola, Mississippi, by Benjamin Harrison. Her time in office was quiet until a white man decided he wanted her position—and a local politician began criticizing the town for the fact that they had accepted her in that role. The harassment got so bad that she resigned her post. But Roosevelt refused to accept her resignation and actually suspended the post office in Indianola for a time.

Edwards: He would not fire her or not let her resign. His standing up for her is significant as well. And so … I think it proves that his ideas on race were complex at best and perhaps unpredictable in many ways.

Unfortunately, it never got safe enough for Cox to return to work, and after she and other black leaders told Roosevelt it would be impossible for any black person to serve in Indianola, he reopened the post office and appointed a white person. According to Dyer, “It is clear that Roosevelt’s defense of Mrs. Cox was made easier by his categorization of her as one of the few blacks who had moved ahead of the masses and thus deserved support.”

Dr. Crum was a physician whom TR attempted to appoint to head up the customs house in Charleston, South Carolina; the controversy over the appointment lasted for years. Dyer writes that Roosevelt hoped “to enhance his standing with black Republicans in South Carolina and in the North,” and that he achieved those ends.

Still, Dyer notes, “It would be erroneous to suggest that TR’s administration had developed a policy intended to promote the cause of black civil rights … the incident stands as another example of Roosevelt’s commitment to the advancement of individual blacks when political advantage coincided with ideology.”

TR’s presidency also coincided with an increase in violence against African Americans. While he was horrified by and publicly denounced lynching, he didn’t do anything to stop the violence.

Edwards: Minus these bigger, more public moments with Booker T. Washington and Minnie Cox, he was fairly passive on intervention in the real incidences of racial violence that African Americans were experiencing in the early 20th century. The increased incidence of lynching that many black journalists, and writers, and intellectuals were trying to publicize in really important ways... And he wasn't their advocate in this way.

Race was also a factor in what many today consider to be the biggest mistake of Roosevelt’s presidency: The Brownsville Affair.

On August 13, 1906, a white man was killed and a police officer wounded in a riot in Brownsville, Texas. One hundred-and-sixty-seven black soldiers at a nearby military base were blamed for the incident, but they all proclaimed their innocence. Roosevelt demanded that the perpetrators be brought forward; when no one confessed or implicated a colleague, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged them all. He did not discharge the white soldiers.

Edwards: These infantrymen were essentially kicked out of the military. This left them without military benefits or pensions, which was a big deal, because some of the members of the unit had served for about two decades and kind of lost all of their military benefits.

Though some tried to get him to walk back his decision, Roosevelt refused. He would not admit that he had been wrong.

Edwards: It wasn't until about five decades later during the Civil Rights movement that activists rallied for and pressured members of Congress to consider Roosevelt's decision. There were Congressional hearings. And it led to the military revoking the discharge. And the sole survivor received remuneration for his service, but this was too late, of course.

Outside the American Museum of Natural History is a statue of TR on horseback. Next to him, on the ground, are two figures: One African, one Native American. The statue is controversial today, because it presents those two figures as submissive to Roosevelt—a clear picture of racial hierarchy. The museum is addressing that, and Roosevelt’s views on race, in an exhibition called “Addressing the Statue.”

David Hurst Thomas: Some of what he wrote about Native American people, about African people, make your teeth hurt today.

That’s David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, and he is right. Roosevelt believed that Native Americans, according to his stages of development theory, were at the savage level, and he did not hold back in horribly and falsely maligning them. He wrote that Native Americans had an “inhuman love of cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” and would torture men, women, children, and even animals; he also indulged in stereotypes of Native Americans as drunkards.

In 1886, Roosevelt gave a lecture in which he said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are … The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”

The fact that white men were pushing Native Americans out of their homelands didn’t bother Roosevelt in the least. In his view, it was destiny for the white race to take over the continent, and it wasn’t surprising that the superior white race had conquered the savage Indian race. Here’s Edwards.

Edwards: They were inhabiting land that was meant for white Americans. He's kind of inheriting a legacy from his presidential predecessors—the fact that they believe that Native American lands were not for Native Americans.

As president, Roosevelt supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually owned lots, with the goal of assimilating them into white society. He also said that programs like Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879, “do a special and peculiar work of great importance.” At these schools, which were located far from reservations, students were given new names and, quite often, baptized. They also weren’t allowed to speak their native languages. In his second address to Congress, Roosevelt wrote that, "In dealing with the Indians, our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people.”

But, again, Roosevelt’s views were complicated. He admired the ferocity of Native American fighters, and condemned white brutality against Native Americans that he had witnessed. And according to his biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, he treated individual Native Americans with respect, despite his “detestation of the race” as a whole.

In 1905, six Native Americans rode on horseback in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade—a bid, according to Gilbert King at Smithsonian, who cites a contemporary newspaper, to show that they had “buried the hatchet forever.”

One of those Native Americans was Geronimo. Though tales about him were exaggerated, the Apache’s reputation meant that he was the tale parents in the American West told their children to get them to behave. But he had surrendered in 1886. He and his men had agreed to an exile of two years. They were shuttled to Florida, and while they were there, hundreds of Apache children were relocated to the Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

The prisoners of wars were eventually reunited with their families in Alabama in 1888, but their journey wasn’t over. The Apaches ended up in Oklahoma, where the captives were allowed to live around Fort Sill.

By the time Geronimo met with Theodore Roosevelt on that March day in 1905, he had been a prisoner of war for almost 19 years. King writes that the warrior begged Roosevelt to send him and the rest of the Apaches back to Arizona, saying, “Take the ropes from our hands.”

But Roosevelt told Geronimo that he had a bad heart: “You killed many of my people; you burned villages … and were not good Indians.” He said he would wait “and see how you and your people act.” Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis Leupp remarked, “It is just as well for Geronimo that he is not allowed to return to ‘Arizona’ ... If he went back there he’d be very likely to find a rope awaiting him.” He was safer in Oklahoma.

Geronimo had converted to Christianity in 1903, joining the Dutch Reformed Church, likely in part to influence Roosevelt. But Roosevelt never changed his mind. Later, after promising to confer with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Secretary of War about his case, he told Geronimo that there was no hope of letting him return to Arizona. It would only lead to more war. TR apologized, saying that he had “no feeling against” Geronimo.

Geronimo never returned to Arizona. He died, still a POW, in 1909.

According to David Hurst Thomas, Roosevelt’s views toward Native Americans may have changed, however slightly, toward the end of his life, thanks in part to a trip taken out to the Four Corners in 1913.

Thomas: My interest of course is American Indians, so I looked at what he did to Indian people while he was president, and I have some real problems with that, with the Indian schools and cutting off their hair and they can't speak their language and kill the Indian to save the man, all this argument. He went out to the Four Corners and took a trail ride with one of his kids. And they ended up going to Hopi country. He wrote three pieces about that.

Roosevelt observed the Hopi Snake Dance, a complex ritual that includes elements of handling rattlesnakes. But it was the ordinary lives of the Hopi that really had an impact on him. He called them “a reasonably advanced, and still advancing, semi-civilization; not savagery at all.” He noted that there was “big room for improvement; but so there is among whites.”

Thomas: What he comes out of it seeing is he didn't say he was wrong, but he says, “Now, I can see there are things in these other cultures that deserve to be preserved.”

He still wanted the Hopi to be gradually assimilated “to the life of the best whites,” he said, but now, he wanted that assimilation to be shaped “as to preserve and develop the very real element of native culture possessed” by the Native Americans, which, he said, “in the end may become an important contribution to American cultural life.” He hoped they would be “absorbed into the white population, on a full equality.”

In Roosevelt’s four-volume The Winning of the West, he writes not just about Native Americans but also about slavery. And, just a warning, this section includes terms that some might find offensive.

Slaveholders, he wrote, were “the worst foes, not only of humanity and civilization, but especially of the white race in America”: “The negro, unlike so many of the inferior races, does not dwindle away in the presence of the white man. He holds his own; indeed, under the conditions of American slavery, he increased faster than whites, threatening to supplant him."

And it gets even worse from there: “He actually has supplanted him in certain of the West Indian islands, where the sin of the white in enslaving the black has been visited upon the head of the wrongdoer by his victim with a dramatically terrible completeness of revenge. … Slavery is ethically abhorrent to all right-minded men; and it is to be condemned without stint on this ground alone. From the standpoint of the master caste it is to be condemned even more strongly because it invariably in the end threatens the very existence of that master caste. From this point of view the presence of the negro is the real problem; [the] slavery is merely the worst possible method of solving the problem.”

Edwards: He opposed slavery because he believed that the way that it evolved in the U.S., it meant that the United States was not created for anybody who wasn't white. And so he believed that when the British brought African slaves to the colonies that became the nation, it kind of marked the history of the United States in a negative way because from that point on, black people then had claims to their rights and their citizenships in a nation that was by and large created for whites. He was opposed to slavery not on moral grounds, but really in many ways, on white supremacist grounds. If he believed fundamentally that slavery was a stain on the republic because the republic was created for white men, it means that ideas of kind of the West, of Americans dominating and taming the Wild West, about really ideas of manifest destiny even, those ideas were created by and for whites, white men in particular.

McCarthy: Did TR ever change his views on African Americans and Native Americans? 

Edwards: Particularly with Native American and African Americans, I don't think that his views evolved that much. While they may have changed for him, that didn't translate into meaningful policy and political change for people of color.

For someone who really admires Roosevelt, it can be hard to square these views and philosophies with his incredible life and accomplishments. But to gloss over this would have left us with a two-dimensional view of Roosevelt, and an incomplete picture of our own history.

Given the many ways other historians have characterized TR’s views on race, I asked Edwards how she would describe his views.

Edwards: First and foremost, I think he believed in white supremacy. I would hesitate to say that he's a white supremacist. I think that he harbored, and articulated, and expressed certain white supremacist agendas that translated to how he governed as president, particularly on issues of race. Yet, at the same time, I do think that he was a man of his time and was influenced by his surroundings. But I also think it's important to evaluate, well, were there people around him or were there contemporaries who were expressing more progressive ideas on race and race relations? The answer is a resounding yes, right?

Just calling him a racist, I think, is the easy way out. I think it's more interesting and more important to interrogate, well, why and how? It’s easy for us to categorize historical figures in binary terms, good or bad, in terms of our moral perceptions of them. But I also think it's true that, as you know, that understanding the time in which Roosevelt lived and understanding the ways in which race relations were horrible at that time is important to understanding who he was as a president, who he was as a person, and really getting a fuller understanding of his so-called progressivism. Because he may have been progressive in terms of his thoughts on the economy, trust busting. He may have been progressive in certain other policy ways, but on race, he wasn't.

That's an important part of understanding our political figures, right. We live in a country, that from the very beginning, has been polarized along issues of race. And so yes, it is important to understand our public figures and political figures' perspectives on race because it's such an important part, in my mind, of what it means to be American, thinking about these questions—because it's an indelible part of the American story.

The fact that he did amazing things for idealizing and realizing the beauty of America's natural landscapes, right, for ideas of conservation, that's really important. And we don't have to denigrate that legacy with his problematic legacy on race. And so, I think it's important to view historical figures as they were. They're complex people with complex inner-workings of their lives. And it's just important to understand that human complexity.

And on that note, we’ll take a quick break.

 

I don’t know about you guys, but I think about alternate histories, or parallel universes, a lot. (This might have something to do with my obsession with the TV show Lost, but … I digress.) I’ve been thinking about them a lot during this podcast, too.

We live in a timeline where Theodore Roosevelt became president, but there’s probably a timeline out there where he was a successful rancher, or pursued natural history. Or perhaps a timeline where he never dropped out of law school and instead became a lawyer. In another, he was focused on writing. And in another, Theodore Roosevelt was never even born.

So what does the world look like in these universes?

Will Shafroth: Our country would have been a lot less conservation minded.

That’s Will Shafroth of the National Park Foundation, who notes that, in addition to creating wildlife refuges—which protected the nation’s wildlife—and greatly expanding the National Forest System—which set aside millions of acres for preservation—TR also planted the seeds for the National Park Service.

Shafroth: President Roosevelt really saw these public lands that were being set aside for their scientific value. The future was part of his motivation for this and that I think also very forward thinking and recognizing the sort of a place of humility, I think for him as a human being, to see that we're just here now, but there's so much we need to learn from what happened before to inform how we live in the future, which is pretty powerful I think.

Here’s David Hurst Thomas.

Thomas: If you look at presidential actions over the last couple of centuries, what Roosevelt did with the landscape and wilderness is the most important thing that any president did between the Civil War and World War I. He was able to take those brief years of his presidency, from 1901 to 1909 and make a lasting impression on this country that it's hard to even imagine what it would have been like had he not done that.

But of course, Roosevelt did more than just preserve lands. He quite literally changed the international landscape by helping to make sure the Panama Canal got built. Here’s Clay Jenkinson.

Jenkinson: We would have gotten the canal. It was inevitable that there was going to be a canal. The United States would have almost certainly had to build it. But there's nothing like a strong person to cut the Gordian Knot and cut through all the diplomacy and nonsense and BS and the lobbying and so on.

Without TR, it probably would have just taken longer. A lot longer.

There would have been political implications, too, if TR had never been president. Here’s Michael Cullinane.

Cullinane: I reckon the Republican party would have gone on to win elections until the Great Depression. There would have never been Woodrow Wilson. I think the United States probably would have intervened in World War I sooner, because the Republicans were much more ... They were more pro-allied than Wilson was. I think we probably could have had a short World War I, and can you imagine if World War I ended sooner and the Germans lost sooner? It would have been … Millions of lives would have been saved. But, yeah, it's a fun question. If Roosevelt wasn't president, would we have all these lands preserved, like do we have national parks the way we have them today? I very much doubt that. Without his really remarkable ability to push the Antiquities Act and then successive executive orders preserving these lands, we probably don't have places like the Grand Canyon preserved, or the vast woodland of the North Pacific.

And there’s one other big thing that probably wouldn’t have happened if TR had never been president.

McCarthy: Do you think we get an FDR without TR?

Cullinane: I mean, if we're doing counterfactuals on FDR, I think probably not. He's got this ideological connection to Theodore Roosevelt and if Theodore Roosevelt hadn't been president, I can't imagine how FDR would have developed his own ideology. And … I mean, obviously, in 1920, the only reason why he gets to run as vice president is because he's got that name, and there's loads of evidence about that from the Democratic National Committee saying that, you know, he's OK because he's got the right name.

McCarthy: Which one of his accomplishments or policies had the biggest positive impact?

Cullinane: Well, I don't think it was just conservation that was a major positive impact, although that's got to count as one of the big ones, but I think his ability to manage the big businesses and labor relations of his time really kicks off the progressive era. The capital and labor question was the biggest question of his time, it's what defined the gilded age, it's why we have a progressive era, is because the role of government was becoming greater and greater and Roosevelt is really the key figure at the helm of that movement, even if, of course, there's a lot of activists in grass roots movements that are moving the United States towards that.

McCarthy: And which of his accomplishments or policies do you think had the biggest negative impact?

Cullinane: I think Roosevelt could have done more for equality, more for equality of the sexes and more for equality among races. I think having Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner is a good thing but I think other policies were far, far worse, you know? Discriminatory. And I mean that in terms of immigration, I mean that in terms of Native Americans, I mean that in terms of African Americans. There's a lot more that he could have done around inequality. On the sexes, it's interesting that there's this cultural feeling, even within his own family, that women … really they're not ... It's not that they're not fit to vote, it's just this sort of, like, lingering tradition that women don't vote. Roosevelt wrote an undergraduate thesis about women and suffrage and I think actually he had progressive views, and voices those progressive views in 1912 when he's running for president, but he never really sees these through while he's president or when he's, you know, planning to ... When he's a Republican, and I suppose he takes on suffrage in 1912 because it's political expedient. It's not something that he has this passion for, and I think one of the things that he could have done better would have been to work for greater equality amongst the sexes, the races, etc.

We live in the timeline where TR was president, where his mug ended up on Mount Rushmore. Bully for us. After visiting that site, I pick up Tyler Klang, one of the producers on this podcast, and we drive from Rapid City straight up into Medora, North Dakota, where TR retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother in 1884.

When TR came here from New York, he was clearly an outsider: A dude in a buckskin suit, with a knife from Tiffany. In my all-black ensemble, I, too, feel a little bit like a dude when we roll into Medora, population 112.

Klang: Describe Medora for the listening audience?

McCarthy: So ... Medora is Medorable, I would say. I'll show myself out. It looks like, you know, your typical little Wild West town. There's like, those storefronts, or like … the fronts of the buildings that are really flat and square. There's these beautiful buttes … rock formations, or something, I don't know what they're technically called, just like … around town.

Medora has made much of its association with TR: Tyler and I are staying in the historic wing at the Rough Riders hotel, which has little Teddy Bears, dressed as Rough Riders, on the beds. There’s a statue of TR as a Rough Rider, a one-man TR show starring Joe Wiegand, whose voice you’ve heard in this podcast, and a burger place called The Maltese Burger, after TR’s ranch, Maltese Cross. And, of course, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is here, with the actual Maltese Cross cabin.

Roosevelt also plays a role in the Medora Musical, which is described as “the rootin'-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the Midwest.” Before the show, Tyler and I attend a cowboy cookout, during which steaks are cooked on pitchforks—they are literally stacked on pitchforks and stuck into a grill!—and it is WILD. Then we settle in for the musical, which is a variety show that features Medora’s famous and infamous characters with a healthy dose of musical theater belting. It is extremely my thing.

We see TR’s arrival in Medora and the charge up Kettle Hill.

"We all turned out to greet the local cowboy who made it to the White House."
"It is here that the romance of my life began. I would never have become president had it not been for my time spent in the West."
"If he had but one memory of his life that he could take with him, what would it be? His response? 'It'd be of my time hunting and ranching in Dakota.'"

And then the show ends with TR belting out a song from “The Greatest Showman.”

Afterwards we chat with Ken Quiricone, one of the Burning Hills singers, who plays TR. Quiricone has been with the show for eight seasons but has only played TR since last year.

Quiricone: I think we are so lucky to have that, to have that presence when he was, at that time, as a conservationist, as a president, it's so awesome that we had that person that loved the land, loved the people who used the land. It was cool that he used the land properly. And, so, he was truly one of my favorite presidents for that and it's very humbling and it's awesome that I get to do it on stage every night. It's pretty cool.

We only had a couple of days here in North Dakota before we have to turn around and make the trek back to the Rapid City airport. Beyond visiting the Elkhorn site, we didn’t have time to journey into the park, which is a bummer, because we were both really, really hoping to see a bison.

We opt against getting up at 6 a.m. to drive through the park and decide instead to make a quick stop at the Painted Canyon on the way out of town. Maybe, I tell Tyler, we’ll see a bison there.

It’s hard to describe Painted Canyon, but … I’m going to try.

In some other timeline, it’s possible that this landscape would be dotted with oil derricks or machines digging out the coal, but in this one—the one where Theodore Roosevelt prioritized saving lands like these—there are mounds of various sizes as far as the eye can see. The mounds have been worn away by erosion to reveal colorful layers: The brown and tan layers are sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone; the blue-gray layers are bentonite clay, a.k.a. the stuff that’s used in some brands of kitty litter, which was created by the ash from volcanic eruptions. Black is a layer of coal, and red is clinker, which is created when the layers of coal catch fire and cook the layer above it, and also a word I will never get tired of saying. Some faces of the mounds are covered in grass and trees. The sky above is full of gray clouds, and I can see distant rain.

It is breathtaking.

We turn around to head back to the car, and…

McCarthy: It's a bison!

The bison is across the road from the visitor’s center, head down, grazing on grass, his tail flipping away files. Male bison can weigh up to 2000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, and this guy is huge.

In 1885, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world.” At that point, less than a thousand of the animals existed. Twenty years later, as president, he became one of the founding members of the American Bison society, which used bison from the Bronx Zoo in New York to bolster wild herds.

The bison we’re looking at is a very physical symbol of Roosevelt’s legacy. So is the undisturbed beauty of the Grand Canyon, the sequoias in Yosemite, the hills of Painted Canyon.

As I’ve wrapped up work on this podcast, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Michael Cullinane said—about how we can never really know what TR would do in situations today, or who he’d support politically, or even who he really was.

Cullinane: The reality is that he's lost to the past and the past is different from history. We get to make up history. The past is something that we can never recreate perfectly and that is ... That's a good thing. It means that we can learn a lot about ourselves through how we understand the past, and it's why Theodore Roosevelt's legacy is all over the place from the 1920s, because, in different generations, people remember him differently.

McCarthy: What do you think is TR's ultimate legacy?

Cullinane: It's whatever we want it to be. Tomorrow, you know, everything might change and we might have a completely different view on Roosevelt and whatever it is at that moment is whatever we're interested in, and right now it's about the environment and it's about conservation. Twenty years ago it was about a hero. I mean, Edmund Morris' book comes out I think in '79, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and that was in a time when, you know, Watergate had happened, Jimmy Carter wasn't very popular, America wanted a hero, so Edmund Morris provides this book about a hero. But I think we don't know what's going to come up in the next year, two years, 20 years, but whatever does come up, Theodore Roosevelt remains popular, and we will extract from his legacy what we want.

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy might be malleable. We might never be able to really know who he was. But standing in these places he helped preserve, staring at a species he helped save, maybe we can tap into how they made him feel, and why he felt it was so important to save them—and, ultimately, how lucky we are that he did.

So, this is it—the final regular episode of the first season of History Vs. I have had so much fun making this podcast. This has been my passion project, but it wasn’t just me who brought it to life: Behind every podcast host is a great team helping to make it happen. This project wouldn’t have been possible without the Mental Floss staff, who helped me write scripts as well as supplemental TR content on mentalfloss.com/historyvs, or without the support of the people at our parent company, Minute Media.

And I really couldn’t have done this without the incredible production team at iHeartRadio, who very patiently walked me through this process and made these episodes sound so amazing. Finally, I want to thank the experts who very generously gave so much of their time to this project, and I want to thank you—yes, you!—for listening. If you have any questions for me about TR, or just want to see pics of all the TR stuff on my desk, you can find me on Twitter @erincmccarthy.

We’ll be dropping bonus episodes from time to time, and our second season will come out later on this year. Until then, speak softly, and carry a big stick!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Wiegand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to the Popes, Lane Johnson, Sharon Wright, Aretha Wilson, Justene Hill Edwards, Michael Cullinane, Tyler Kuliberda, Clay Jenkinson, Will Shafroth, Maureen McGee-Ballinger, and David Hurst Thomas.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

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