History Vs. Episode 5: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Language

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Have you ever looked at a word—like although, for example—and thought: There are just too many letters in this word? If so, congratulations: You have a little something in common with Theodore Roosevelt, author of more than 30 books and 150,000 letters.

You know who else thought there were just too many letters in English words? Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

In 1906, Carnegie created, and financially supported, the Simplified Spelling Board. According to The New York Times, Carnegie thought that English had the potential to be “the world language of the future,” and that would help lead to world peace.

But according to the Board, English was “handicapped by one thing and one only—its intricate and disordered spelling, which makes it a puzzle to the stranger within our gates and a mystery to the stranger beyond the seas.”

The Board decided to pursue a course of reform by omission: Drop letters that were unpronounced or deemed unnecessary. Teaching would be made easier, written correspondence would be faster, printing would be more efficient, not to mention cheaper. One publisher estimated that using Simplified Spelling in the publishing business would save up to $40 million—which is over a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Board’s proposed reforms were published and somehow found their way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that what the board was proposing made a lot of sense.

He threw his support behind their reforms, which included chopping although from A-L-T-H-O-U-G-H to A-L-T-H-O and knocking the extra S’s and ED’s from words like missed and kissed so that they were spelled M-I-S-T and K-I-S-T, respectively. P-H-A-N-T-O-M became F-A-N-T-O-M. Cats wouldn’t P-U-R-R, they’d P-U-R. And so on.

But on August 27, 1906, when TR signed an Executive Order that made the Board’s spelling reforms required in government documents, he never could have predicted how controversial his actions would be.

Simplified Spelling wasn’t the only way TR took on language in his life—he warped the pronunciation of words to get noticed, coined iconic phrases, and used the English language as a political tool. Just how did he use language to achieve his desired ends? We’re about to find out.

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. Language.

By the time he became president, Theodore Roosevelt was a master of many languages: He could read in French, German, Italian, and Latin (though he called reading in Latin “dreary labor”). He also spoke French and German, although his French was, in the words of his Secretary of State John Hay, “lawless as to grammar.”

He also had a very unusual speaking style—so unusual that, according to Edmund Morris, it “has the effect of burying his remarks, like shrapnel, in the memory of the listener.” Once they hear what he’s said to them, they don’t forget it.

Arika Okrent: It seems like he did have a very distinctive way of talking since it was remarked upon by people who wrote about it, and they noticed it. So it must've been … seemed a little odd or strange.

That’s Arika Okrent, linguist and Mental Floss contributor, and the person I call whenever I have a question about language.

There are some recordings of Roosevelt speaking, but as Okrent notes, most of what we know about how he spoke is through other people writing about it. And whenever they talked about how he spoke, they also usually talked about his teeth, so we’ll continue that fine tradition here.

According to Morris, Roosevelt’s “white and even” teeth would “chop every word into neat syllables, sending them forth perfectly formed but separate, in a jerky staccatissimo that has no relation to the normal rhythms of speech.”

One of TR’s colleagues summed it up by saying, “I always think of a man biting tenpenny nails when I think of Roosevelt making a speech.”

His manner of speaking led some to believe that he’d had a speech impediment as a kid. A college classmate noted that when they deliberately riled him up, he would “sometimes lose altogether the power of articulation,” and according to a colleague in the New York State Assembly, “he would open his mouth and run out his tongue and it was hard for him to speak.” Morris notes that his diction was “syncopated … sibilants hiss out like escaping steam; plosives drive the lips apart with an audible pfft.”

Okrent: Plosive P, I imagine would be like an extreme build up. So a Ppp, a lot of air coming out, maybe some spit, very forceful. P-Powerful.

Whatever the reason for how he spoke, Roosevelt leaned into it. As a young assemblyman, he’d warp the pronunciation of the word speaker, yelling “MR. SPEE-KAR, MR. SPEE-KAR!” over and over, sometimes for 40 minutes, to get the speaker’s attention.

Okrent: “This is what everyone else in Congress sounds like,” or, “This is what everyone else in New York high society sounds like.” I guess he would be picking up on that, but he used these devices to get attention, and maybe he also bristled against the elocution training that they did back then. If you went to school, and they did this at Harvard, you had elocution lessons where they taught you how to pronounce things, and do public speaking, and the right gestures to make when you do public speaking, and the right way to breathe and hold your body. And maybe he bristled against that, or maybe thought it was too British, or I don’t know...

Interestingly, when he was out in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s, TR changed his way of speaking, too. In his book Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, Roger L. Di Silvestro quotes the Pioneer Press as writing that “The slow exasperating drawl and the unique accent the New Yorker feels he must use when visiting a less blessed portion of civilization have disappeared, and in their place is a nervous, energetic manner of talking with the flat accent of the West.”

Whether or not Roosevelt was a good public speaker is up for debate. In the 1940s, a grad student named William Auburn Behl put that question to those who had known him, and the reviews were … not favorable. Jeremy C. Young, author of the book The Age of Charisma, put these reviews together in a blog post.

One person called TR’s gesticulations and his high-pitched voice “terrible,” while another said he “wasn’t a great speaker but one felt the force and magnetism of his personality and … his great honesty and genuineness.” As one journalist noted in 1900, “Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel as a campaigner, more from his tremendous strength, energy, force, and endurance than from finish and grace of delivery or diction.”

Young notes that, in Roosevelt’s era, most public figures, like William Jennings Bryan, used an emotional style of speaking called “personal magnetism.” But this was precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt learned at Harvard from his rhetoric teacher, Adams Sherman Hill, who said that “our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them.”

Young says that Roosevelt’s speeches “were often dry, equivocal, and monotonous,” because he’d revise them over and over and then read the typed speeches rather than speaking off the cuff, as Bryan did.

But make no mistake: Even if his speeches could be dull, TR definitely had a way with words. He coined terms and phrases that we still use today, like “bully pulpit,” “nailing jelly to a wall”—he actually said “They might just as well ask me why I do not nail currant jelly to the wall”—and the political usage of “my hat is in the ring.”

Supposedly he’s the one who called Maxwell House coffee “good to the last drop.”

One phrase we all think of when we think of TR is “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” He said it was a West African proverb he was fond of, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it was actually a West African proverb.

He popularized many other words and phrases, like "strong as a bull moose," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," and "pussyfooting." He also popularized the phrase “weasel words,” which originally referenced the legend that a weasel can suck the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell intact. He said he heard a friend’s brother use it in reference to another person who could, in the brother’s words, “take a word and weasel it around and suck the meat out of it like a weasel sucks the meat out of an egg, until it don't mean anything at all, no matter what it sounds like it means.”

It’s a favorite phrase of Okrent’s.

Okrent: It's a metalinguistic look at language. This person is speaking this way, and the things they're doing with their words are weaselly, or the words aren't bearing meaning in the way they should. That's interesting in a sort of the pre-Orwell way of looking at what people do with words, and how they work with words, and manipulate with words.

We’ll be right back.

 

TR also used language to craft devastatingly colorful insults: One supreme court justice was “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” while frequent presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Roosevelt called novelist Henry James a “little emasculated mass of inanity” while Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams was a “true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.” A blatherskite, by the way, is someone who talks a lot without making a lot of sense. Burn.

This mastery of language may not have been evident in all of TR’s speeches, but it was definitely present in some of them. There’s a reason why his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Man in the Arena,” is still quoted more than a century after it was delivered:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

But it can’t all be eloquent speeches and dee-lightful insults and catchy phrases. In his correspondence, Roosevelt used derogatory language and slurs in regards to other races and nationalities. Thomas G. Dyer addresses TR’s use of language like this in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, noting that, “While TR seemed to derive considerable pleasure from the frequent private use of racial and ethnic epithets, he rarely used the terms in public … The extent of this language and the frequency of its usage indicates the preoccupation with racial differences that Roosevelt and his contemporaries had, but it also suggests Roosevelt’s professed objectivity in matters of race should not always be taken at face value.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s mentor, sometimes scrubbed that language, along with some of TR’s insults, from their published correspondence, so Lodge must have known that its use would not have painted TR in the best light.

Roosevelt also felt, in his words, that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He believed that immigrants loyal to America should assimilate completely and be required to learn English, and that only English should be taught in schools.

In a 1916 speech to the National Americanization Committee, Roosevelt said that immigrants should become fully Americanized by learning English. This, he said, would give them more opportunities in America, and they wouldn’t be seen “only as an industrial asset.”

“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it,” Roosevelt said. “Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back.”

This type of attitude, according to Okrent, doesn’t reflect the reality of what actually happens when immigrants come to America.

Okrent: It does look kind of scary I guess when there's a lot of immigrants coming in at once, which there was at the turn of the century, and you go to neighborhoods where everyone's speaking Italian, or you go to towns in Wisconsin, everyone's speaking German and you think, “Oh no, what is this going to do to our national identity?” But looking at one snapshot like that doesn't show the whole picture, which is from generation to generation, things change very rapidly, and it's in the direction toward English. You don't have to do much to make that happen.

The first generation, the old folks, they might never really learn English, and then their kids will be bilingual, and then their kids will be fully English speakers and even forget the original language. These days, that's even frustrating for families that their kids, their grandkids don't keep up the old language, and then they lose it. The pressures of English are so great, and kids are so adept at learning language and giving over to whatever the majority culture is that they learn it, and it seems unnecessary to mandate it or make it some sort of requirement or law.

Um, even today it’s a great thing about our country that we have access to a lot of people who speak a lot of languages, and that's useful. When we need native speakers of a language, we have them, they're citizens. And there's no reason to try to stamp that out.

Not to mention the fact that English is a frequent borrower of words from other languages.

Okrent: English is not picky about what it will let in or accept. We don't have an academy. We don't have … you know, we don’t have to vote on whether we want to let this word in or not. People just start using it, and that makes the language really robust.

In fact, one TR’s favorite words was borrowed from another language. We’re talking, of course, about bully.

Okrent: That apparently comes from a Dutch word originally meaning, like, mate or brother, my buddy, my friend. It was first this term of endearment, and then it meant sort of a ruffian, and then it was specifically the guy who protects prostitutes, and eventually to what we have today. But it didn't come from English.

And then there are languages like German, which has so many words for which there’s no English equivalent. My favorite is kummerspeck, a term for the weight you gain from emotional overeating that literally translates to grief bacon.

Okrent: Yeah, and angst, and all of that schadenfreude, all the things we totally make good use of.

McCarthy: Yeah. We’ve just got to keep letting those words come in.

Okrent: Mm Hmm.

Before we get back to Simplified Spelling— the system by which words are reduced to their most basic expression in spelling, a system that TR championed—I want to take one quick diversion.

In May 1918, TR went to Springfield, Massachusetts, on a mission: To honor those Boy Scouts of Troop 13 who had sold $1000-worth of war bonds. It was there that he—a current titan of language—had an encounter with a future titan of language.

There were 10 boys being honored that May afternoon in the town’s municipal auditorium. As Donald E. Pease writes, “Roosevelt went down the line congratulating each of the young men, repeating a laudatory statement praising each boy’s accomplishment and pinning a medal on the honoree’s chest. … Each presentation was met with thunderous applause.”

There was a problem, though. TR had only nine medals.

So when Roosevelt came upon the 10th boy on stage, and had no medal to pin to his lapel, the understandably confused former president bellowed to the scoutmaster, “What’s this little boy doing here?”

The boy’s scoutmaster didn’t stop to explain the situation, just whisked young Theodor Geisel off-stage. The incident gave the future Dr. Seuss terrible stage fright, and honestly, who can blame him?

TR wasn’t the first person to support a phonetic spelling system—Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Brigham Young had all advocated for spelling reform. Noah Webster, for example, is probably the main reason the letter U was removed from spellings of American words and the Cs were replaced with Ses, which are distinguishing features between American and British English. Then again, he also suggested we spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N and women W-I-M-M-E-N, so, you know, they can’t all be winners.

So when Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in August 1906 directing the Government Printing Office to use the board’s proposed spelling system—what he called an effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic”—he was in pretty good company.

The Simplified Spelling board was thrilled for sure: They even released a “Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book”—that’s phonetic with an F—after the order.

And here’s the thing: The Simplified Spelling Board, Webster, Roosevelt—they all may have been onto something … kind of.

Okrent: You know, if you ever meet Dutch people, or German people, they speak such good English, it can't be that difficult cause people do manage it. But it does have a reputation of certain parts of it being difficult, and a big one is the spelling. You have to learn it. You can't just get a few rules of thumb and then follow that like you can with most other languages. You just have to memorize all these spellings. Your engineering mind goes, like, “We could do this over, we could make this so much better. Why not?”

Well … here’s why not: Simplified Spelling looks ridiculous.

Okrent: If you already know how to read and write, you're just … you’re never going to accept these simplified spellings. It looks so funny. It looks like … you know, like a cat wrote it or something. Our spelling is just embedded in our education, and we're used to it. And sure, you know, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds might be able to do better with phonetic spelling, they probably would. But our educational process is the process of bringing children into what we already do. And um, it's really hard to get over just the comic look of it.

And that’s exactly what the press and critics latched onto after Roosevelt signed the executive order. The backlash was immediate.

We’re going to take a quick break.

 

After Roosevelt signed his executive order mandating simplified spelling in government documents, everyone freaked out.

A paper in Kentucky wrote, in barely legible spelling, “Nuthing”—N-U-T-H-I-N-G—“escapes Mr. Rucevelt”—R-U-C-E-V-E-L-T. “No subject is tu hi fr”—that’s T-U H-I F-R—“him to takle”—T-A-K-L-E—“nor tu lo”—that’s T-U L-O—“for him tu notis”—spelled T-U N-O-T-I-S. “He makes tretis”—T-R-E-T-I-S—“without the consent of the Senit,” S-E-N-I-T. “He enforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales”—F-A-L-E-S—"to se”—S-E—"those that du not soot”—do spelled D-U, suit spelled spelled S-O-O-T— “him … He now assales”—A-S-S-A-L-E-S—“the English langgwidg”—“L-A-N-G-G-W-I-D-G”— “constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot”—T-U S-O-O-T—"himself.”

The reaction overseas wasn’t any better. One English paper wrote, “Here is the language of 80 million suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase”—that’s a Russian word for arbitrary command, by the way, and it’s usually reserved to describe the actions of a czar. The paper went on to say, “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?” while another raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”

Amidst the brouhaha, The New York Times said that, “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.”

Okrent: It's actually harder to read a long text in simplified spelling because you have to stop and sound it out, and we don't do that when we read after, you know, first, second grade. And that makes it actually harder.

It’s no wonder TR wanted to simplify spelling. Though he supposedly had a photographic memory, he was a notoriously bad speller—in fact, his wife, Edith, joked that he supported the system because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”

Roosevelt spun the order as an experiment, writing that if the “slight changes” to the 300 words garnered popular approval, they would “become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual citizens may feel.” If they were not popular, he said the spellings would be dropped—spelled D-R-O-P-T—concluding, “and that it all there is about it.”

But in the end, what Roosevelt wanted didn’t really matter—no one was having his strange spellings. The Supreme Court refused to follow his order, and in December 1906, Congress voted to get rid of simplified spelling, writing—in normal spelling—that the government’s documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

Clearly defeated, TR withdrew his executive order, writing to simplified spelling proponent Brander Matthews, “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in. And it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten … But I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.”

Spelling finally returned to normal.

But if you think about it, in a way, Roosevelt was ahead of his time—the proof is in your text messages, where T-H-O-U-G-H is almost certainly shortened to T-H-O.

So if you’re looking to get noticed, here’s a TR pro-tip: Play around with pitch, punch those plosives, and instead of a demure “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, a loud “ex-skwas-me!” might do. And on that note … TTYL!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand 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 Arika Okrent.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs. That’s MentalFloss.com slash H I S T O R Y V S.

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

History Vs. Episode 7: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Other Presidents

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.

“Shifty, adroit logothete. Cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician. No more backbone than a chocolate éclair. A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him. Puzzlewit! Fathead! Brains less than a guinea pig!”

Yes, those are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. President of the United States, author, philanthropist, avid reader, and inspiration for the teddy bear. He was, from most accounts, a kind and sociable man. But if Roosevelt found flaws, he was quick to articulate them—a fast and furious torrent of putdowns designed to bombard the target of his attack with insults that might require a dictionary to fully process.

Roosevelt didn’t unleash these particular tirades at just anyone. He reserved them for individuals he held to the highest standard because they held the highest office in the land. For Roosevelt, anything less than the naked, harsh truth directed at the commander-in-chief would be a disservice to his country. When it came to other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt pulled no punches. How rough did it get? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. This week’s episode is TR vs. Other Presidents.

Roosevelt’s famously tempestuous attitude toward politicians may have started with his impossible standards. His role model for all things presidential was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one of the few presidents Roosevelt had no quarrel with. He grew up in a household where Lincoln was revered—at least by his Republican father, Theodore Senior, or Thee. (His mother Mittie, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer, likely had other feelings.) Thee had worked with Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War and had even joined Abraham and his wife Mary at church.

After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession ran through New York City. From his grandfather’s mansion in Union Square, 6-year-old Roosevelt and his brother, Elliott, watched as the president’s coffin was carried through the streets.

A photographer even captured the moment, a young Theodore peering out of the window in what would be the first of his many eyewitness experiences in history. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: Lincoln, in Roosevelt's view, was the savior of the country. He was also a friend of his father and TR worshipped his father and his father's associations, and he regarded Lincoln as somebody who had the moxie and the moral strength to do the right thing against almost impossible odds and he knew that Lincoln had paid the ultimate price for that—that he had been assassinated in part because he grew in office, whereas most presidents, as you know, don't grow in office, they decline. But Lincoln was one of the few who actually grew in a big way during the course of his presidency.

Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln endured throughout his life. As president, Roosevelt referred to him as “my great hero,” a degree of affection he reserved for very few people aside from his father.

With Lincoln’s portrait hanging both in the White House and in his home office at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt was constantly reminded of Lincoln’s legacy. “I look up to that picture,” he said, “and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”

He even kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair in a ring, which Roosevelt wore for his inauguration in 1905. It was given to him by John Hay, who had served in Lincoln’s administration—and went on to serve in Roosevelt’s.

Tyler Kuliberda: It was kind of like a Victorian thing, and they would make jewelry into them, so that's what Hay does, and he keeps these, and I think he has two of them made, and he has them for quite a while, and gives them to TR to wear at his inauguration in 1905.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s onetime home and now a National Historic Site.

Kuliberda: I think Roosevelt saw Lincoln as kind of this incredible president, and I think in his own presidency would have liked to been president during a time like Lincoln when the nation was in crisis, and he had to solve these kind of major problems as president.

Roosevelt enjoyed having a memento of Lincoln so close to him. But he was not so fond of one of the other presidents who would end up on Mount Rushmore alongside him.

Roosevelt was famously cool toward Thomas Jefferson, blaming the long-deceased president for his ineffectual efforts in building a military force during the War of 1812 and for Jefferson’s subversive opposition to George Washington’s policies while serving as his secretary of state.

But it was Roosevelt’s contemporaries that received most of his scorn. That rant about a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”? That was directed at Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 and the same man who appointed Roosevelt as a civil service reform commissioner around the start of his term.

Roosevelt had campaigned for him when he was on the Republican ticket. So where did things go so wrong?

For one thing, Harrison didn’t really want reform for federal employees. The position was more of a figurehead role. That didn’t suit Roosevelt and his high standards at all. In his mind, if someone was granted a federal job, it should be because they deserved it and not because they were owed a favor.

For the six years he held the post, Roosevelt was defiant, putting lackadaisical civil service workers and departments in his crosshairs. He advised Harrison to fire George H. Paul, postmaster of Milwaukee, for granting jobs to his friends. His investigation into the Baltimore Postal Service—where Roosevelt found workers soliciting money for political purposes on government property, which, according to historian Edmund Morris, was against the Civil Service Code—put him against Postmaster General John Wanamaker even more directly.

Wanamaker tried to run his own investigation into the matter and reported that it found that no wrongdoing had occurred. But a House Investigative Committee, acting on Roosevelt’s insistence, found that Roosevelt was right. Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: It was just a natural instinct of his to read the job as boldly as possible and to make sure that he got himself in the newspapers and to make sure that he was on the right side of these questions and he wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. He'd take it right up to the edge, and … where they're just like so annoyed and disgusted with him because he won't … he won’t play the game. You know, he just couldn't play the game and they wanted him to be a figurehead at least and to be … they knew that he was the best stump speaker they had and that he could galvanize an audience, but they wanted him to be less hectic and to be less certain of things and to go along more than he did.

This wasn’t how government was supposed to work—government wasn’t supposed to be fair. Cynicism and cronyism mandated that politicians did favors and the winning team showed support. But Roosevelt didn’t care what party anyone belonged to. He was on a mission, and if Harrison’s allies were in the way, he had no problem taking them down.

That commitment had consequences for their relationship. When Harrison and Roosevelt met, Harrison took to tapping his fingers, a nervous tic that developed as a result of the aggravation Roosevelt caused him.

There was, of course, the situation with the money-soliciting Baltimore postal workers.

And the fact that Roosevelt went after William Wallace, the postmaster of Indianapolis and a man who also happened to be Harrison’s best friend, for hiring incompetent—and corrupt—workers because they were Republicans.

Later, Harrison would say of Roosevelt, “The only trouble I ever had with him … was that he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.”

Harrison’s overt displays of favoritism needled Roosevelt, perpetuating some of his most articulate insults. He called Harrison “the little gray man in the White House” and “a genial little runt” behind his back.

Roosevelt managed to last through Harrison’s term, and would end up being re-appointed civil service reform commissioner once Grover Cleveland entered office in 1893. He left his post in 1895 and became president of the board of police commissioners in New York City. His next brush with the presidency would come when William McKinley ran for the office in 1896.

McKinley’s campaign had given Roosevelt pause. Before McKinley’s first term, Roosevelt wrote to his friend and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “it will be a great misfortune to have McKinley nominated … If I could tell you all I have learned since his campaign has progressed, you would be as completely alarmed over the prospect of his presidential nomination as I am.”

When it seemed like McKinley would soon be named the Republican nominee, Roosevelt dashed off a letter to his sister, Bamie: “McKinley, whose firmness I utterly distrust, will be nominated; and this … I much regret.”

Roosevelt didn’t dislike McKinley. He noted he was an “honorable man, of very considerable ability and good record as a soldier and in Congress.” But where Roosevelt felt Harrison was politically savvy, he got the impression that McKinley was without a spine. “He is not a strong man,” Roosevelt said. “Unless he is well-backed I should feel rather uneasy about him in a serious crisis, whether it took the form of a soft-money craze, a gigantic labor riot, or danger of foreign conflict.”

Roosevelt’s tune changed slightly when McKinley was elected.

Jenkinson: TR was an ardent Republican and he could never stray from the Republican camp. And so that dictated a lot of what he did.

McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. But the peace didn’t last long.

Jenkinson: He thought that McKinley was unimaginative and unnecessarily cautious and that McKinley was timid about going to war against Spain in 1898. And TR really went on a somewhat questionable campaign to sort of force McKinley's hand to declare war against Spain when McKinley said, you know, "We've had one big war during my lifetime. I hesitate to begin another one." But TR read every possible story coming out of Cuba in the way that made the Spanish look worst, made it sort of a righteous issue of whether we stand for anything and especially after the sinking of the Maine. That's why he called McKinley names and said that he had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.

He would later campaign extensively for McKinley’s second term. By this point, Roosevelt was more than just a supporter. After a two-year term as governor of New York, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt campaigned for McKinley in a really big way in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan; McKinley didn't leave his home in Canton, Ohio. He ran that front porch campaign and sent out this voluble, hectic, crazy, energetic vice presidential candidate to do all the work on the stump. Roosevelt of course threw himself into just head and shoulders and had the time of his life. And took on Bryan and probably McKinley would have won anyway, but it's Roosevelt who did the heavy lifting in the campaign and really found his voice in the American West while doing that. He said horrible things about Bryan. He said he was a human trombone, which is virtually my favorite thing, my favorite Roosevelt insult of all. So he believed that McKinley was sound economically and he realized especially after 1898, that McKinley could be manipulated or managed, let's put it, to pursue a more vigorous American role in the world than he might instinctively have intended.

One would think that Roosevelt would exert a little more patience with the guy on his campaign ticket, but … it’s Theodore Roosevelt we’re talking about here.

For one thing, Roosevelt didn’t really want to be vice president. He thought the office was ineffectual and constricting. “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president,” he said.

Here’s Kuliberda:

Kuliberda: This is a man who cannot sit still, and you put him in the vice presidency, which he just regarded as an idle office.

But Roosevelt’s friends knew it was a step closer to the presidency. Senator Lodge urged him to take it on and stick by McKinley’s side, declaring it “invaluable” for his future in politics.

So why would McKinley select him as a running mate? It was more indifference than anything. Supporters buzzed in McKinley’s ear that Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and a war hero, would bring some much-needed fire into the campaign. Plus, the New York Republican party machine desperately wanted him out of the state.

And so McKinley and Roosevelt became the Republican hopefuls of 1900. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who viewed Roosevelt as a loose cannon, was not a fan. “Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?”

Roosevelt’s concerns about the role proved accurate. McKinley never consulted him on policies and refused to let him interact with the Senate as a liaison, as he had done with his previous vice president, Garret Hobart. Roosevelt, meanwhile, found McKinley’s glacial decision-making process infuriating. But he wouldn’t have to endure it for long.

On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

He died of gangrene only a little over a week later. According to an eyewitness, when Roosevelt heard the news of McKinley’s shooting, “a look of unmistakable anguish came to his face, and tears immediately filled his eyes.”

Jenkinson: Well, TR was in upstate New York. He had presided over the Senate for I think five days before they adjourned and now he was sort of just wandering and giving speeches and going hiking and camping and, you know, writing and doing all the things the Theodore Roosevelt does. He got the word that McKinley had been shot. And he made an emergency trip to Buffalo to be at McKinley's bedside and then he realized McKinley was probably going to recover. He went back. He thought it was unseemly for him to hang around the sick man's bed. And so he went to upstate New York. He was on Marcy, the highest point in the state, when a messenger came running up the path and informed him that the president was going to die that night.

Roosevelt raced to Buffalo to be by McKinley’s side, although he would be too late to see the president before he passed. Though they had their differences, the tragedy overshadowed any political divide.

Following McKinley’s assassination, it was time for Roosevelt to step into the role held by men he had often criticized.

The so-called madman was now in the Executive Mansion. Would that experience afford him a new perspective on the challenges of the job? Of course. Would it prompt him to bite his tongue when it came to his successor? Probably not.

We’ll be right back.

 

Imagine what it would be like to disappoint someone with the standards of Theodore Roosevelt. Just … think about that for a moment.

William Howard Taft didn’t have to think about it. He experienced it first-hand.

Taft was Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office, he selected Taft as his choice for the presidential nomination. Taft was named the nominee in 1908, and Roosevelt believed he would welcome advice with an open ear.

Hmm. Not quite.

Roosevelt felt Taft was a little too careless with his image. Seeing Taft fishing and golfing instead of shaking hands and kissing babies, he urged Taft to “put yourself prominently and emphatically into this campaign.”

Of his recreational activities, he said: “I am convinced that the prominence that has been given to your golf playing has not been wise, and from now on I hope that your people will do everything they can to prevent one word being sent out about either your fishing or your playing golf.”

Roosevelt had very particular ideas about how a president should behave, and what kind of image they should project. Presidential candidates weren’t supposed to be seen enjoying themselves. “I never let friends advertise my tennis, and never let a photograph of me in tennis costume appear,” he said. And Roosevelt believed that Taft should allow his constituents to see him smiling: “Always. Because I feel that your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.”

According to Kuliberda, TR had tight control over his public image—very much a thing with politicians today but a new concept in TR’s time. It’s one of the things that made him the first modern president.

Kuliberda: He was very aware that you are going to be written about in newspapers. Your image is going to be broadcast through newspapers, people are going to see you, even the ones you don't interact with, so if you're playing golf, like William Howard Taft did, that has its sort of own connotation, if you're playing tennis that has its own connotations. Roosevelt thought it was feminine. He didn't want to be seen as feminine, so he doesn't allow anyone to photograph him playing tennis.

If it sounds like Roosevelt was acting as an image consultant for Taft, well, he was. He was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, and his success—or failure—would in some way reflect back on Roosevelt’s legacy.

According to Jenkinson, Roosevelt was right to lecture Taft about golfing, because average people back then couldn’t afford to golf.

Jenkinson: That was a rich man sport. It takes time, it takes money, it takes privilege. Roosevelt said, "If you want to be the leader of a people, you have to narrow the distance between yourself and the common man, not accentuate it by being photographed in an aristocratic hobby." Roosevelt had incredible political instincts. He wanted to be photographed climbing a mountain or being lowered on a rope in front of a waterfall or killing something because then that would be something people could really respect. But if you're photographed doing something that only the privileged get to do, then you're sending the wrong signal to the country.

It’s not hard to imagine that Roosevelt’s nagging irritated Taft. The press’s spin on things may have also rubbed him the wrong way: They decided that his last name could be an acronym, short for Take Advice from Teddy.

Taft beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and TR was sure his successor would continue his legacy of reform. Roosevelt left on a hunting trip to Africa for a year, allowing Taft a chance to make his own mark in office.

Jenkinson: So TR was not as good a judge of character as his wife, Edith. He loved Taft and Taft was an incredibly able man, but Taft really wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And that's what he was well suited to. It was his wife, Nellie, who forced him to accept the presidency. He didn't really want it but she was ambitious for him. And so TR thought that Taft would continue his policies. What he didn't realize is that Taft was not strong. He was big, but he wasn't strong. And so in the Republican Party at the time, there was a progressive wing of people who wanted reform and child labor and to lighten the burdens of the poor and clean up our food supply and so on, and then there was the stand-pat wing of rich capitalists who just wanted government to either be their handmaiden or to get out of the way. And Roosevelt was able to hold those two tribes, those two factions of the Republican Party, together, because he was a war hero and because he was our first cowboy president and because he was Roosevelt. But Taft wasn't able to do it. He didn't have enough firepower, enough charisma. And so Taft had to choose, and he chose to move back towards the old stand-pat J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller wing of the party.

Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s lofty expectations. He found it easier to be complacent with existing laws than to become combative. A former lawyer, he wanted to remain within the boundaries of office, whereas Roosevelt was keen on exerting as much control as he could. Taft possessed none of Roosevelt’s firebrand policies, none of his aggressive attitude towards improving the country. At the end of the Africa trip, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain: “I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents, but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than … others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” Poor Taft bemoaned that he couldn’t even lose weight.

In some ways, Taft was like a sibling, looking up to a bigger brother for approval. He invited Roosevelt to the White House, but Roosevelt refused. “I don’t think it well for an ex-president to go to the White House, or indeed to go to Washington, except when he cannot help it,” he sniffed. Time and again, Taft would make advances and Roosevelt would rebuff them. Taft would later say Roosevelt’s chilly demeanor “deeply wounded” him.

Jenkinson: He had felt that he had assurances from Taft that Taft would continue the progressive initiatives, particularly on conservation questions. And when Taft didn't, Roosevelt felt angry, betrayed, and somewhat righteous and vindictive. Plus, I mean, it’s just the case that Roosevelt couldn't stand not to be empowered. He just couldn't stand not to be the guy. He was the youngest former president because he was youngest president and he made a stupid mistake by renouncing a third term. He left at the height of his powers before he had finished all that he wanted to do.

The friction grew worse when Taft finally made a sweeping change, advising the government to sue the monopolistic U.S. Steel—an industrial behemoth Roosevelt had tacitly approved of in 1907 in order to avert financial panic. Not only was Taft slow to act, but when he did, it was to try and reverse one of Roosevelt’s decisions. An irate Roosevelt actually penned entire published essays devoted to separating his policies from those of his onetime friend.

The problem? Roosevelt’s decision on the U.S. Steel situation was probably a mistake. According to Jenkinson, the key players in the merger concealed their true motivations from the president. Economics was not TR’s strong suit, and he acted quickly to stave off the panic—but if he’d had more time to read up on his options, he might not have approved the merger. Still, nothing stopped him from defending the decision he had made.

Jenkinson: When it became abundantly clear that he had been manipulated and that it was probably an unnecessary thing and maybe an unethical thing for him to have done, he just got more and more and more righteous about it. The same was true about Panama when the Wilson administration gave the Colombian government $25 million. He threw just a gigantic hissy fit over that and broke with the Wilson administration.

A poison pen was not Roosevelt’s only comeback. He decided to challenge Taft in the ultimate arena of the presidential election. Roosevelt announced he was returning to run in 1912, vying for the Republican nomination against Taft. Those references to a “flubdub” and “someone with brains less than a guinea pig”? Roosevelt was referring to Taft. The incumbent was quick to retort, calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler,” or someone who gains an advantage by cheating, as well an egotist, a demagogue, and a flatterer. And after Roosevelt said he was no longer going to attack Taft personally, Taft proclaimed, “having called me everything in the category of bad names that are mentioned in polite society, he now wishes to indulge in less emphatic expressions.”

Jenkinson: So now, their friendship has been damaged and frayed by all of this, but now it was really a tragic business because Taft loved Roosevelt. He actually wept and said, "He was my closest friend. I loved TR." And TR was much less emotional about it. He was really caught up in his own righteousness. So they began to call each other names. And, you know, Roosevelt was great at insults. He called him a fathead and all the other things that he said. A puzzlewit.

McCarthy: How did the public react to his insults, especially with Taft because it's not like you're insulting just anyone when you call them a guinea pig power brain, you're insulting the president.

Jenkinson: Well, most people didn't know about this. Most people were … So they knew that TR was this cowboy and that he was shot from the hip and that he was not afraid to punch somebody metaphorically or physically if necessary. Certainly, that was his public persona—that he was a Christian warrior and that he was not afraid to take on trusts or anything that got in his way, and he loved that, and he circulated those stories. He was glad that they circulated because he felt that they gave him a political advantage. But we know more about this than they did because some of this was in private letters.

The Republicans tried to curb the rivalry, offering to arrive at a compromise and find a third candidate. Roosevelt would have none of it. “I’ll name the compromise candidate,” he said. “He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”

After a controversial convention that saw the Republican National Committee award Taft the necessary delegates to guarantee his selection, Roosevelt could have been gracious in defeat. Instead, he remained in the race, breaking away from the Republicans and running as a Progressive in his Bull Moose party. The sniping continued.

Jenkinson: These were picked up in the newspapers and it was like the public was following this feud and Roosevelt wasn't sorry—he knew that his only path to victory was to bring down the sitting incumbent president of the United States. And so he wanted the public to share his view that Taft really wasn't up to it.

McCarthy: Did any of his remarks come back to sort of bite him or ...

Jenkinson: Well, you never really want to burn your bridges but TR—when I lecture about this, Erin, and I always say that TR, the post-president, was really a very unpleasant person. He just couldn't stand not being in power. And he didn't realize this when he left. He wrote all these letters to his children like, "I've had my time and the public moves on and, you know, nobody has enjoyed this more than I have and it's time for others. And there's a weariness about me in the country," but he didn't believe it. He actually thought that he was the indispensable man.

Indispensable, or indestructible? Preparing for a speech at Milwaukee Auditorium on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. He survived. He even finished his speech. Schrank later said he shot him in part because William McKinley had come to him in a dream and ordered him to do the deed. It seemed that Theodore Roosevelt’s clashes with presidents both past and present were far from finished.

We’ll be right back.

 

In competing against each other, both Taft and Roosevelt lost. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who secured the 1912 election. And unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t much care for him, either.

Wilson was bookish and self-aware. He knew Roosevelt appeared to be larger-than-life. “He is a real, vivid person, whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for, millions strong,” Wilson said. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”

In the face of such self-deprecating commentary, Roosevelt still let him have it with both barrels. Wilson, he said, was “a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the presidency.” Here’s Jenkinson:

Jenkinson: He just belittled poor Wilson and treated him just so shabbily and undermined him. Most presidents when they leave are graceful to their successors but TR just couldn't be and it wasn't a partisan thing. He was equally awful to Wilson as he was to Taft.

As it often did, Roosevelt’s scorn stemmed in part from a president who deviated from Roosevelt’s well-worn path. In a treaty with Colombia a few months before the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States proclaimed “sincere regret” that anything came between the friendship of the United States and Colombia, like the Panamanian coup Roosevelt had sent a ship to support.

To Roosevelt, that was an admission—a sign of institutional weakness he would never have allowed. That it was in open defiance of his decision rankled him even more.

In a press release, Roosevelt called Wilson’s handling of foreign affairs “such as to make the United States a figure of fun in the international world.” He criticized the treaty and with the help of Senate allies blocked the treaty’s ratification. When the treaty was finally ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, the “sincere regret” clause had been removed.

But it was more than a difference of diplomacy. In his heart, Roosevelt was a soldier. He lived for combat, be it verbal, physical, or territorial. When Wilson was faced with the decision to bring America into World War I, Roosevelt criticized his cabinet’s pacifism.

Writing to his friend Arthur Lee, Roosevelt said that “It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like [William Jennings Bryan] as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people … and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.”

On another occasion, he bemoaned Wilson’s lack of action following the German sinking of the Lusitania and told his son Kermit that a “lily-livered skunk” was occupying the White House.

Speaking to the public at large about the sinking of the Lusitania, he said: “This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced.” Roosevelt said that the act “constituted warfare against innocent men, women, and children traveling on the ocean, and to our own fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”

Jenkinson: He belittled Wilson's manhood over this, that he wasn't a real man because he said he was an Aunt Nancy, I think he called him, and made all these slurs about the virility of Woodrow Wilson because Wilson was trying so hard to keep the peace and when Wilson said that he was going to keep us out of war, Roosevelt's view—and Roosevelt turned out to be right, by the way—Roosevelt’s view was, "We will have to get involved in this war. There's no way the United States of America is going to avoid World War I. So we may as well get ready for it. If we're prepared when the war comes, we'll be able to fight it more successfully and the victory will be more complete. If you dilly-dally around, by the time you get into war, you're not going to be ready for it and then that's going to be a delay and that means you're not going to be able to control the postwar arrangement in Europe. You're going to lose some of your leverage over the postwar."

Writing to his son, Archie, Roosevelt was even more accusatory, placing the blame for the victims of the Lusitania directly on Wilson’s shoulders. “As a nation, we have thought very little about foreign affairs; we don’t realize that the murder of the thousand men, women, and children in the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness in failing to take energetic action when the Gulflight was sunk but a few days previously.”

(Just a quick fact check here: Though there were reports that the Gulflight had been sunk, it was actually just damaged and towed in. OK, back to the quote.)

“… [Wilson and Bryan] are both abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it, and they will consider nothing but their own personal advantage in the matter.”

Wilson, however, did put up a fight—when Roosevelt goaded him into one. “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head,” Wilson said.

The men reconciled, if ever so briefly, when Wilson decided to join the war. Roosevelt came over to the White House and, over lemonade, pitched himself as going back to the Army to take up his post as a commander of the Rough Riders, which had barnstormed the Spanish-American War in 1898 and helped perpetuate Roosevelt’s reputation as a hands-on combatant. Wilson eventually refused, which once again drew Roosevelt’s ire.

Jenkinson: He said, "Theodore, war has kind of changed since San Juan Hill. It's not done that way anymore. There's no room for a voluntary cavalry unit in France. When Wilson wouldn't do it, it just threw Roosevelt, who was a naturally pugnacious figure and won a gloried war, it threw him in to a complete tailspin. He just wanted someone to punish and there was Wilson. And so he wrote increasingly awful op-ed pieces and then wondered why Wilson wouldn't send them over to France with the Rough Rider unit.

Wilson later said he believed Roosevelt’s cause was borne out of ego and self-aggrandizement. Secretly, he may have also feared Roosevelt becoming a war hero once more could lead to a White House run in 1920.

Roosevelt’s four sons wound up enlisting. One of them, Quentin, died in the skies over France. It was Wilson who confirmed the news via telegram.

Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see the remainder of Wilson’s second term. He died on January 6, 1919. Some of his remaining days were spent authoring editorials for the Kansas City Star about his repeated criticisms of the president. While it concerned Wilson, it summarizes Roosevelt’s feelings about the office he treated with such reverence:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or [his] bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”

Roosevelt was fiercely critical of the office of the presidency, a role he believed needed to be contextualized and challenged constantly, which could be one explanation for why he assessed other presidents so harshly. But there is another possible explanation. Were his insults, criticisms, complaints, and admonishments fed by ego? By a sense that he, Theodore Roosevelt, could and did do a better job? Perhaps.

McCarthy: I feel like a lot of his hostility, you know, was about sort of people failing to live up to his standards for what he thought the presidency should be, but do you think his standard was just like: it should be me?

Jenkinson: Just think of it this way: Who would you think could follow him? Who has his mighty potency and his power of language and his patriotism? There's nobody. I mean, we think that Franklin Roosevelt in many respects saved the country, maybe saved the world, but he was a mere shadow compared to TR and he always lived in envy of TR's vitality and TR's sheer political joy at being at a good slugging match with his opponents or perceived opponents. So I think, we sort of lock ourselves into a problem, because what follows TR? Wilson is a more kind of professorial figure and then the whole series of Harding and Coolidge and so on. These are just nonentities who released power back to the legislative branch. So TR was going to have trouble no matter what, but it was his own personality problem, his own righteousness and his own sense that he was the only one that really puts him in such an ugly light in the years from 19-9 to 1919.

But Roosevelt wasn’t fighting just for the sake of fighting or to have his own legacy polished. He fought because he felt it was the role of citizens to confront government, to force politicians to defend their positions and remain culpable to the individuals they represent. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want to fight other presidents. He wanted other presidents to fight for him.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen, with research by me and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. Joe Weigand 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 Clay Jenkinson and Tyler Kuliberda.

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.

The Unusual Journey of Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin

Before becoming president and moving to the White House, Theodore Roosevelt made a ponderosa pine log cabin in the Dakota Badlands his temporary home. The Maltese Cross Cabin was a place he came to live the life of a cowboy, in a secluded area that was basically the opposite of the bustling streets of his native New York City. But the house didn't stay secluded for long: Throughout the first half of the 20th century, it was exhibited in cities across the country, making it one of the most well-traveled former homes of any U.S. president.

Though it looks humble by today's standards, the Maltese Cross Cabin was regarded as a mansion by Dakota ranchers in the late 1800s. After Roosevelt purchased primary interest in the Chimney Butte Ranch—or the Maltese Cross Ranch, as it was known by locals—he had a one-and-a-half story cabin constructed on the property. It had many features that were luxurious for the plains of the Dakota territory, such as three rooms, wood floors, and a pitched, shingled roof that housed space for a loft. It was the New Yorker's main Dakota home when he made trips to the area in 1883 and 1884, when the Elkhorn became his primary ranch.

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in hunting outfit.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Roosevelt assumed the presidency at the turn of the 20th century, the Maltese Cross Cabin embarked on an eventful new chapter. It was no longer owned by TR by that time, but thanks to its former owner's new title, the building was more famous than ever. The organizers of the North Dakota exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair hatched a plan to share the landmark with a wider audience. The state purchased the cabin, took it apart, and shipped it to St. Louis where it was reassembled in time for the World's Fair on April 30, 1904. The 20 million people who attended the exposition were able to see the rugged cabin that once housed the president without trekking to the Badlands as TR had 20 years earlier.

The exhibit was a success. In fact, it was so well received that Portland, Oregon, asked to show the cabin at the city's Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition the following year.

So the Maltese Cross Cabin made another trip—this time to the West Coast, where it would stay from June 1 to October 15 of 1905. When the exposition concluded, the structure was shipped back to North Dakota for the state fair in Fargo. The next time it was moved—now to Bismarck in North Dakota—excitement around the artifact had faded, and it was left on the grounds of the state capital for years, where it fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn't until the Daughters of the American Revolution took possession of the cabin in 1919 that it was restored to its former glory.

In 1959, the cabin made its final journey. Some of TR's old ranch land in North Dakota had been made into a National Park, and the National Park Service wanted to return the structure to its original home. They worried that the cabin wouldn't be able to handle another disassembly, so instead of breaking it down, they secured the entire 26-by-18-foot house to a flat-bed truck and drove it 135 miles across the state.

The Maltese Cross Cabin has resided at Theodore Roosevelt National Park ever since. But it wasn't exactly returned to its original location: Roosevelt's ranch house sits several miles away from the spot where it was constructed in the early 1880s. Despite the numerous trips and deconstructions, many aspects of the building, including its ponderosa pine logs, have remained the same throughout the decades.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER